How to Make Complex Collaborations Work

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?

Complex collaborationWe 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:

  1. Clarify Purpose
  2. Convene the Right People
  3. Cultivate Trust
  4. Coordinate Existing Actions
  5. Collaborate for Systems Impact

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.SCMSN members

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.

  1. 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. SCMSN map, March '15To 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.SCMSN map, September '15

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.

  1. 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. SCMSN conveningTherefore, 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.

  1. Collaborate for Systems Impact

To collaborate for systems impact, 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.

SCMSN structure

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.

Complex collaborations in organizations

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 for systems impact. 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.

Network EntrepreneursLike 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.

Nine Strategies to Scale Impact

We recently engaged with Virtual Enterprises International (VEI) to help them scale their impact across the nation. VEI is an incredibly effective live business simulation that integrates with the school day and allows students to become young professionals in a transformed classroom. After 18 years of program design and delivery, VEI has proven its model and expanded to 350 schools nationwide, reaching 10,000 students. But think about it: there are 25,000 public and 12,000 private secondary schools in America. That’s a total of 18 million secondary students. The chasm between the number of students currently served and a population-level scale is vast.

This challenge is classic in the social sector. Highly effective models tend to be resource and human-capacity intensive. Teach for America, a remarkable and well run nonprofit with a $212 million annual budget, still only reaches 750,000 students per year. Many social sector organizations must truly pivot to scale and achieve maximum positive impact.

Building on the great work of many of our colleagues, including Jeff Bradach, we believe these are the nine of the most powerful strategies to scale impact:  Continue reading

Generate Leads & Influence Your Target Audience with Network Analysis

Applying social network analysis to strengthen and grow the global B Corp network.

Social Network Analysis (SNA) allows us to visualize and measure the connections between individuals, information, and organizations. Applying SNA can reveal how various stakeholder groups within a network are connected, and how information and resources flow through that network. From this, SNA can identify individuals or organizations who are key influencers exhibiting high degrees of “social capital” within a given community or around a given topic. While not a silver bullet, SNA is an important tool for network and community-building efforts.

When paired with emerging real-time and public data sources such as Twitter, SNA can expand your ability to quickly identify promising leads, distribute key messages through the most influential sources to reach your target audience and track online conversations in real-time. Continue reading

Harnessing Disagreement, from Mihnea Moldoveneau

Mind meldThis post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been adapted from an interview with Mihnew Moldovenau, published in the Spring 2015 issue of Rotman, the Magazine of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.

Decisions do not occur in the vacuum of one’s mind, but in the caldron of relationships. It is a process fraught with political and interpersonal conflict and tension, but which relies on collaboration and cooperation in spite of the emotional landscape on which it unfolds.

No single mind can behold the right solution at a glance, nor can any single mind even behold all the promising solutions.

As a result, disagreement needs to be harnessed rather than camouflaged in order to uncover all of the sources of value that each contributor brings to the table. The final requirement for solving complex problems in collaborative settings is a set of tools that turn disagreement into generative tension.

Mihnea Moldoveneau, Peter Pauly, Rotman School of Management, Rotman Magazine, Spring 2015

Conflict = Thinking, from Margaret Heffernan

At Converge, we think a lot about how networks and organizations can learn to generate productive tension, rather than shut down in the face of disagreement. When teams and groups master the ability to harness creative abrasion, the result is smarter strategies, better decisions, stronger relationships, and higher morale. In short, greater positive impact.

As Margaret Heffernan explains in this TED Global talk, good disagreement is central to progress. She illustrates how the best partners aren’t echo chambers — and how great research teams, relationships, and businesses allow people to deeply disagree.

Margaret HeffernanSo what does that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves. That means we have to resist the neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves, and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.

And the more I’ve thought about this, the more I think, really, that that’s a kind of love. Because you simply won’t commit that kind of energy and time if you don’t really care. And it also means that we have to be prepared to change our minds.

So it’s one thing to do that in a one-to-one relationship. But it strikes me that the biggest problems we face, many of the biggest disasters that we’ve experienced, mostly haven’t come from individuals, they’ve come from organizations, some of them bigger than countries, many of them capable of affecting hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives.

So how do organizations think? Well, for the most part, they don’t. And that isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s really because they can’t. And they can’t because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict.

In surveys of European and American executives, fully 85 percent of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. Afraid of the conflict that that would provoke, afraid to get embroiled in arguments that they did not know how to manage, and felt that they were bound to lose. Continue reading

Why Strategy Execution Unravels, from Sull, Homkes & Still

We think a lot about the relationship between strategy and execution at Converge, reflecting often on the famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for lunch”. Execution is about culture and leadership. Poorly executed strategies are not just a shame – they waste precious human and financial resources, are tough on morale, and undercut long-term performance. This think piece from a recent article in Harvard Business Review talks about large companies – the authors surveyed 7600 managers in 262 companies across 30 industries – but the lessons are also valid in the social and public spheres, and in smaller organizations. I found this article to be the most useful thing I’ve ever read on the topic.

Taming-strategy-400x379A recent survey of more than 400 global leaders found that executional excellence was the number one challenge, heading a list of some 80 issues, including innovation, geopolitical instability, and top-line growth. Two-thirds to three-quarters of organizations struggle with execution. And it’s no wonder: Research reveals that several common beliefs about implementing strategy are just plain wrong. Here are five of the most pernicious myths:

Execution equals alignment

Whereas companies have effective processes for cascading goals downward in the organization, their systems for managing horizontal performance commitments lack teeth. When asked to identify the single greatest challenge to executing company strategy, 30% cite failure to coordinate across units. Managers also say they are three times more likely to miss performance commitments because of insufficient support from other units than because of their own teams’ failure to deliver. More than half of managers want more structure in the processes to coordinate activities across units – twice the number who want more structure in the management by objectives system. Processes to align activities with strategy up and down the hierarchy are generally sound. The real problem is coordination: People in other units can’t be counted on.

Execution means sticking to the plan

After investing enormous amounts of time and energy formulating a plan and its associated budget, executives view deviations as a lack of discipline that undercuts execution. Unfortunately, no strategy survives contact with reality. Managers and employees at every level need to adapt to facts on the ground, surmount unexpected obstacles, and take advantage of Continue reading

6 Ways to Make Groups Smarter, from Sunstein & Hastie

This post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been adapted from the writings of Cass Sunstein & Reid Hastie, Making Dumb Groups Smarter, Harvard Business Review, December 2014. 

The Problem

Groups often fail to live up to their potential as decision-making bodies. Instead of aggregating the knowledge and wisdom of their members, they end up making bigger errors than individuals would.

Why It Happens

Group members take informational signals from what others say, even when the information is wrong or misleading. Reputational pressures can cause them to silence themselves or change their views in order to fit in. As a result, groups often amplify errors, stampede towards bad decisions, foment polarization and extremism, and ignore information that isn’t widely held.

The Solution

Leaders can structure group deliberations to make them more likely to succeed. Continue reading

The Best Of: Rotman, Fall ’14 – The Search for Effective Innovation

rotman fall 2014We know you probably don’t have time to read through full magazines, so we read them for you. This month we summarize the best of: Rotman Management Magazine, Fall 2014, with a focus on effective innovation.

Rotman has long been one of our favorite publications, with many thought-provoking articles and interviews on design thinking, psychology, consulting, behavioral economics and neuroscience. You can subscribe here – we guarantee your thinking will be sharpened as a result.

The Innovator’s Challenge, Dilip Soman

In the US alone, estimates suggest that as many as 75% of all new product launches fail. The latest research shows that efforts to solve social problems have focused too narrowly on developing solutions and not sufficiently enough on developing a rich understanding of the process that individuals use to adopt solutions. Real consumers are Continue reading

The Big Lie of Strategic Planning, from Roger Martin

This post is a part of our Think Piece series, in which we synthesize and share the most insightful concepts from our favorite books, articles & thought leaders. The following has been modified from the writings of Roger Martin, The Big Lie of Strategic Planning, Harvard Business Review, January 2014. 

“Customers and context are both unknowable and uncontrollable.”

In 1978 Henry Mintzberg published an influential article in Management Science that introduced emergent strategy, a concept he later popularized for the wider nonacademic business audience in his successful 1994 book, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. Mintzberg’s insight was simple but indeed powerful. He distinguished between deliberate strategy, which is intentional, and emergent strategy, which is not based on an original intention but instead consists of the company’s responses to a variety of unanticipated events.

Mintzberg’s thinking was informed by his observation that managers overestimate their ability to predict the future and to plan for it in a precise and technocratic way. By drawing a distinction between deliberate and emergent strategy, he wanted to encourage managers to watch carefully for changes in their environment and make course corrections in their deliberate strategy accordingly. In addition, he warned against the dangers of sticking to a fixed strategy in the face of substantial changes in the competitive environment.

THE PROBLEM

In an effort to get a handle on strategy, managers spend thousands of hours drawing up detailed plans that project revenue far into the future. These plans may make managers feel good, but all too often they matter very little to performance. Continue reading