Something Tom Atlee recently wrote sums up for us what’s happening on the planet right now. “Things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster, in bigger and bigger ways.”
We live in a world of problems that are so complex — so tangled up with other problems, so non-linear, ambiguous, and volatile — that they defy solutions and cannot be effectively addressed by any one organization or even by any one sector. Problems like reducing poverty and homelessness, providing high quality universal healthcare and education, and slowing climate change and environmental degradation. Problems like terrorism, racism, sexism, social inequality, political instability, refugees, drug abuse, and child abuse.
What then do we do to address complex, systems-level problems? To really address the root causes of today’s major challenges — rather than just manage the symptoms?
We believe that lasting change and the resolution of these systemic issues is going to require effective collaboration across silos, across organizations, and across sectors, in ways that serve both the self-interests of the participants and the shared interests of the collective.
Unfortunately, making this kind of collaboration work well is notoriously hard, particularly between organizations. As Joycelyn Elders, the first African American to serve as the US Surgeon General, said:
“Collaboration is an unnatural act between unconsenting adults.”
There are so many new models and terms flying around for describing collaborative efforts — like Collective Impact, Aligned Action, Social Impact Networks, multi-stakeholder partnerships and more — that it’s hard to know sometimes what people are really talking about.
In our view, however, all of these are different forms of complex collaboration. Whatever you call it or however you go about it, collaboration is about making “we” work. And making “we” work ultimately comes down to building smart, collaborative relationships that endure, evolve, and function effectively over the long haul, in ways that serve both the self-interests of the participants involved, and the shared-interests of the collective.
Networks are a particularly effective and versatile framework for thinking about complex collaboration. If you really want to dive into network theory , Connecting to Change the World, by Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor and John Cleveland is a great place to start. The ENGAGE website produced by Monitor Institute and The Rockefeller Foundation is also a good resource.
But while the WHY and the WHAT of complex collaborations often differ, we’ve found that the HOW is remarkably consistent, regardless of your preferred model or what you choose to call them.
The effectiveness of any network or collaborative effort primarily depends on constantly managing a few basic activities:
- Clarify Purpose
- Convene the Right People
- Cultivate Trust
- Coordinate Existing Actions
- Collaborate at the Systems Level
These five activities are not strictly linear – they loop back and forth on each other, and you must constantly revisit all five of them throughout any collaborative effort.
Let’s begin by looking at how these five activities provide a framework for making complex collaborations work. We’ll do that by stepping through each of them, using the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network (SCMSN) as an example. Then we’ll look at how these same principles can be used to cultivate collaboration not only between organizations, but within organizations as well. Finally, we’ll discuss the unique form of leadership that is needed to successfully facilitate and advance a complex collaboration.
- Clarify Purpose
The first step in launching any collaboration is making sure you know why a collaborative effort is needed. The problem you’re trying to address may evolve over time. But to get people in the room to begin the process, you need a clear initial statement of what the problem is that you want them to address.
Design thinking teaches us that formulating purpose as a question prompts our brains to stay flexible and helps a collaboration maintain a focus on emergent strategy and refine its purpose over time. The typical approach we use to helping a group define their purpose is to ask them to complete the question: “How do we…?”
The SCMSN formed because people across the system had begun to realize that to care for the natural and human systems throughout their entire region was going to require a collaborative approach. They knew, furthermore, that the Santa Cruz Mountains region as a social system was fragmented, with historical tensions and significant mistrust.
Therefore, the effort began with a simple, aspirational statement of the SCMSN’s purpose, which is “to help cultivate a resilient, vibrant region where human and natural systems thrive for generations to come.” After seven months of working together, this purpose statement became a more elaborate Memorandum of Understanding, which was ratified by the network’s members in October 2015.
- Convene the Right People
Convene the right people means bringing people together who collectively can tackle the problem you’re trying to address.
Like your purpose statement, the people who need to be involved in a collaboration will evolve over time. But it’s critical from the start to bring together a broad selection of people who represent different parts of the system you’re trying to change. As our colleague David Haskell of Dreams InDeed would say, involve and include “the other”.
The “right people” are definitely those who represent the whole system and have the ability to get things done, particularly leaders of their organizations. But they’re also simply the people who show up and stay engaged.
In the SCMSN, members own or manage about half the protected and working lands in the region’s total area of 500,000 acres, and the people who participate in convenings are leaders of their organizations. Network members represent federal agencies, state and county parks departments, land trusts, nonprofit organizations, private landowners including the region’s largest timber company, research institutes, and community and tribal groups.
- Cultivate Trust
Trust has become a buzzword. We all know it’s important, but very few treat it as what it really is: the single most important ingredient of successful collaboration.
Cultivating trust is where most collaborative efforts fall short, and why most do not live up to their full potential. For collaboration to really work and achieve the systemic change we all know is necessary, enduring relationships are not a nice to have – they are a need to have.
We commonly confuse trust with “liking” or “agreement.” But in collaborative settings, participants don’t need to like each other – and they absolutely shouldn’t agree with each other on every issue. When we talk about trust we mean trust for action—what we call trust for impact. This is the kind of trust that can hold the tension through difficult conversations, engage in generative conflict, find a slice of common ground, and make collaboration a reality, and not just an aspiration.
The common wisdom is that it takes a long time to build trust. We respectfully disagree. As long as you go about it deliberately, building trust for impact does not have to take a long time. To build trust requires that we see more than the attributes that make up someone’s external context—what they say or do, their title and organization, their gender and skin color. To build deep trust and understand other people in an authentic way, we need to get to know their internal context—their values, motivations, what gets them up every day, the things that have made them who they are.
For a practical look at what it means to build trust, here is a network analysis we conducted just before the first convening of the SCMSN in March 2015. Each circle, or “node,” is a leader in the network. The colors indicate the different types of organizations they represent, and each of the lines connecting the nodes signifies a meaningful connection between two members. As you can see, the region was pretty fragmented, particularly in the lack of connections between different types of organizations.
After only two convenings – during which we gave people a lot of time to build genuine relationships so we could go fast later – you can see that the system is much more interconnected.
This connectivity is the invisible structure that makes complex collaborations work. Even if the network never met again, the system is much more resilient than it was before, because there are deeper relationships, increased frequency of communication, and greater collaboration between organizations.
- Coordinate Existing Actions
Once trust is established, people are more likely to notice, seek out, and follow through on opportunities to partner with other members of the collaboration. Therefore, the next step in cultivating an effective collaboration is to identify the work that participants are already doing to address the problem that has brought everyone together, and to connect the dots and coordinate these activities. In this way, members can collaborate around common goals, avoid duplication of efforts, and leverage their organizational resources.
After just one year of working together, members of the SCMSN were engaged in over 40 new collaborative projects that had formed between two or more organizations, in what is described in the next section as the place where self-interest and shared-interest intersect.
- Collaborate at the Systems Level
To collaborate at the systems level, members of a complex collaboration must begin by identifying what are often described as “leverage points”—or those places in a system where, as Donella Meadows has said, “a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.”
In this respect, leverage points are something like acupuncture points—those places where a finely-tuned, strategic intervention is capable of rebalancing and realigning an entire system. In a complex collaboration, leverage points are also those opportunities where participants can have more effect by working together than they can by working alone.
In the collaborative efforts we have worked with, the leverage points that participants have identified for affecting their system or shared problem have frequently coalesced around opportunities such as working together to increase public awareness of the problem, securing resources as a network to continue or enhance their ability to collaborate, or drawing on the strength of their collective voice to influence public officials and policy makers.
Once leverage points have been identified, members partner with others on one or more self-selecting teams to develop and implement a plan of action for generating the influence or effecting the change that has been identified. Members typically join teams where they feel they can have an effect, and where their organization’s priorities align with the shared priorities of the collective. The six active teams of the SCMSN are listed in the diagram below.
This overlap between a member’s individual priorities and the collective’s shared priorities is what we refer to as the intersection of self-interest and shared-interest, and it is critical to the success of a collaboration.
Most complex collaborations require the commitment of people who already have other jobs, which are frequently demanding in their own right. Therefore, serving the purpose of the collaboration must in some way also serve the purpose of each member and the people they represent. Otherwise, in time, members of a collaboration are not going to be able to sustain or justify the extra commitment they have assumed by participating in the effort, and they may choose to leave — which is OK.
Collaborations are living systems, not static machines. Therefore, the teams in a collaboration should not be viewed like the standing committees on a nonprofit board. Rather, they are agile groups that form when a need arises, and disappear when they’ve completed their task. Similarly, complex collaborations are sparked when the need arises, and they may likewise dissipate when their purpose for existing has been fulfilled.
To make sure that the collaborative teams actually get stuff done, we recommend that each team select a Team Lead. This function is served for the collaboration as a whole by the Core Team — a leadership function sometimes referred to as a Leadership Team or Steering Committee that is composed of a diverse selection of network members who are elected by all the collaboration’s participants. The Core Team usually makes preliminary decisions about such topics as funding, membership criteria, and external partnerships. The Core Team’s recommendations are then communicated to the whole network for consideration and a final decision by all the members of the collaboration. Deciding how a large group makes decisions can be tricky, but we’ve found that the fist-to-five method for consensus decision making works remarkably well.
Finally, just like the organizations involved in a collaborative effort, the collaboration itself can’t exist in a bubble and expect to thrive. Over time, the collaboration needs to engage and coordinate with other related or complementary efforts, particularly those within the same geography. In the case of the SCMSN, this has meant connecting with the Peninsula Working Group, a similar collaboration focused on lands north of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Large Landscape Practitioners Network, a national alliance of conservation professionals dedicated to advancing the theory and practice of stewarding entire regional landscapes.
Complex Collaborations in Organizations
Now that you have a sense of how the five activities are used to form a collaboration of multiple organizations, let’s look at how complex collaborations can also work within traditional, hierarchically structured organizations or systems, such as governments, national nonprofits, or hospital systems.
Trying to change an existing system is often compared to trying to turn a battleship or an ocean liner—not easy and it typically takes a long time, if it can be done at all.
So instead of trying to change a traditional organization as a whole, it’s possible to operate part of your organization like a network — a dual-operating system” as John Kotter calls it, “with all the agility that enables” — while at the same time maintaining a reliable hierarchical system that keeps doing what you already do well.
For example, we recently worked with the UCSF Health system to support a complex collaboration featuring 40 leaders representing 12 sites and 10 health disciplines to improve the coordination of care for people with serious illnesses. Although the context was very different from a network building effort like the one described above, the process, or the HOW, was very similar.
Collaborations within organizations also need to clarify a shared purpose, convene the right people, cultivate trust, coordinate existing actions, and collaborate at the systems level. The result at UCSF Health was a system-wide collaboration consisting of six teams, each one focused on a key leverage point — all coordinated by a six-person Core Team.
Complex Collaborations Require Good Leadership
Not long ago, there was a popular idea among many who are committed to social change that the great hope for the evolution of society rested with the cultivation and funding of social entrepreneurs. Indeed social entrepreneurs and social sector leaders are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient.
In case after case, it has simply proven too difficult to fully scale individual organizations to match the scope and complexity of the problems we face.
In sober appreciation of these challenges, we have come to the conclusion that the essential ingredient needed for effective, systems-wide social change are servant leaders who have the capabilities needed to build truly effective collaborations, across silos and divides. We call these leaders “network entrepreneurs,” and we think of them as representing an evolution of social entrepreneurs.
Like social entrepreneurs, network entrepreneurs are visionary, ambitious, and relentless in pursuit of their missions. But where social entrepreneurs often struggle, despite heroic efforts, to scale their own organizations, a network entrepreneur’s approach expands beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem.
The role of a network entrepreneur is to help the members of a collaboration to convene, connect, communicate, and coordinate around its shared purpose. They are able to mobilize a constellation of people, resources and skills that enables the achievement of a shared vision. They operate not from within any single organization, but in the space between. In this way they are a special breed of what Senge, Hamilton and Kania called system leaders.
To fulfill this role, a network entrepreneur must be able to fulfill three core functions:
- Front of the house: public interface and outreach, external communications, and fundraising.
- Middle of the house: process design, meeting facilitation, conflict management and mediation, member on-boarding, project coordination, and network weaving.
- Back of the house: operations including convening logistics, tech support, project tracking and evaluation, and financial planning.
Just as there are teams of business and social entrepreneurs who launch a startup together, there could also be teams of network entrepreneurs who work together to catalyze and sustain complex collaborations. A team can be stronger and more resilient than any single person, if they too are connected through trust and a shared purpose.
For seven examples of leaders that are generating systems-level social impact in environmental conservation, education, economic development, and beyond, check out the network entrepreneurs series in Stanford Social Innovation Review.
Return on Relationships
Above all, when planning a collaborative effort, keep in mind that the greatest investment you can make to ensure its success is in cultivating resilient relationships between the people and organizations involved. Strong relationships are the cause of successful collaboration, not just the result of it. This is what we call the Return on Relationships.