Swimming through wet cement ... with needles in your eyes?

Collaboration Masterclass 2013

Collaboration is difficult work but it can be learned

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”
—Henry Ford

At the year’s end we often reflect over the year that was—either to be glad to put it behind us or to be appreciative for what it was, but always with the hope that next year will be an improvement. We will right the wrongs and not make the same mistakes again (again!)

As I think about how this process plays out each year (probably everywhere), what doesn’t change from year to year is the necessity and opportunity to work together.  Unless you are Robinson Crusoe you’re always engaging with someone.  And this has been the strongest theme for 2013 for me.

It’s been right under our noses all along, we’re doing it every day and yet understanding the practice, purpose, and nature of collaboration has never before seemed to be more needed and vital.

Since Social Leadership Australia began in 1999, the belief that we can build better leadership by finding ways to work across sector, diversity, culture, and gender has been core. Many things have changed but that hasn’t—and neither has the difficulty or the opportunity in collaborating.

We’ve become more sophisticated, talking about cross-sector collaborations with multi-stakeholders, working in systemic complexity on adaptive or wicked challenges; and we now have really useful frameworks such as Collective Impact and systems thinking to inform us.  I’ve taken part in and hosted numerous conversations on collaboration this year where the theory and complexity is tossed around, and yet it still always boils down to one thing: the core skill of interpersonal interaction.  ‘How do I engage with you? And you, and you, and you —when we see the world differently?’

This is the core of the work of collaboration, not aligning with partners we’re on the same page with. Yes, we need to have the ‘right’ people on board but sometimes—actually, most of the time—adaptive change means working with who’s there. We don’t get to choose the ‘right’ people and often when we do we end up doing business with ourselves and we don’t change anything other than what benefits our own piece of the world.

What I get excited— and nervous and frustrated—about is how we hold each other at the crux of collaboration to be able to work beyond our differences and create something new.  Collaborative work means all of us have to change something in how we’re working together. It’s hard, it’s often painful but it’s ultimately rewarding, even if that’s not obvious at the time.

Some of the hardest learning I’ve had has been in collaboration. It’s been incredibly painful at times as I’ve had to confront where my own beliefs or ways of doing things have not helped, where I’ve had to let go of an ideal or expectation about how things could or should be, in order to gain something pretty close to it. Being on the other side of the work now, I can reflect back, stroking my chin wisely on all the learnings that I gained and how useful it has been for me, but at the time it was like swimming through wet cement with needles in my eyes. And I know that stuckness will happen again as I collaborate more and more. But (hopefully) I will have more awareness to guide me and while I know I will be in cement again, my work always confirms  that working on this capability is useful and it’s needed.

Whether you’re coming together, staying together or finding ways to work together, some capabilities which are useful to focus on (without developing a shopping list for 2014) are:

1. Are you clear about what impact you can have together that you can’t have alone?
It can be tempting to skip the step of defining a measurable and achievable purpose, and leap straight into actions and outcomes instead. But a shortcut here is a bad idea. In times of change, knowing your purpose is often all you have to anchor you and keep the group engaged.

2. Are you aware how much power and authority you have in the collaboration?
Most collaborations have unequal power dynamics. If these are not discussed, power can be neglected or abused. If you are perceived as having the most authority, it is especially important to be clear of your role to provide the key functions of protection, direction and order. A desire for ‘no-one to take the lead, we’re all collaborating’ can mean these are ignored. But someone needs to stand up and accept the responsibility, or the endeavour will not be successful.

3. How safe is it for everyone to speak up and try something new?
The only way to get a new result is to find a new way of doing things. And the best chance of this happening is when stakeholders have a safe environment to learn together, experiment and break out of the comfort of ‘business as usual’. Think about what mechanisms can be put in place to create an atmosphere where there is no ‘wrong’ and any idea can be brought to the table and considered without judgment.

4. How well do you understand your own tolerance for conflict?
Too often collaborators shy away from conflict. But it is inevitable when different agendas are brought together. And it’s this melting pot of sometimes opposing viewpoints that will lead to innovation. Ultimately building your capacity to deal with conflict is core to mining the ‘untapped gold’ in a collaboration.

5. What’s my piece of the mess?
When collaborations get stuck or come into conflict it’s often crystal clear to us where others are at fault or are making things difficult. It’s far harder to see our role in stuckness. But if we think we are part of the solution, we need to also shoulder our part in the problem. Often just owning our 1% share allows others to do the same.

6. Which values is each side bringing to the collaboration, what do they stand to lose and what will be gained?
All change involves some loss. Our difficulty can be in recognising and accepting this, particularly when it happens to us. Having a clear vision of the gains or purpose that the whole collaboration is working towards will enable a focus beyond individual agendas and help you work through the loss.

Join us for Collective Impact 2014 and learn more!

Social Leadership Australia has partnered with the Centre for Social Impact to create Australia's first ever conference on collaboration and Collective Impact to be held in Sydney on 25-6 February 2014. Offering a two-day immersive learning experience, this is a fantastic opportunity to develop your skills to work in complex collaborations.  Find out more on the conference website at http://collectiveimpact2014.com.au/