This post was originally published on May 10, 2016 on Communities Collaborating.
Whether it is collective impact, or another collaboration framework, our collaborative posture is a critical underlying factor in success
Recently the Collective Impact Forum featured a terrific piece by Sheri Brady and Jennifer Splansky Juster on the Collective Impact Principles of Practice. These eight principles to guide efforts to put collective impact into practice are long overdue.
There is still something missing. Each of the principles help collaborative groups operationalize the five conditions of collective impact (which you can probably recite by memory now: common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support). Yet each of the principles assumes members of collective impact groups possess the collaborative posture to enact the eight principles. I am wary of this assumption. I fear most people will read the CI Eight Principles of Practice and respond much in the same way they did to the CI Five Conditions: “Yep, makes a lot of sense. Got it! In fact, we’re doing those things already.” My experience in creating new collaborative efforts, and helping to repair existing efforts gone awry, has taught me that the best principles and conditions in the world will not make any difference if members have poor collaborative posture.
Much of what has been written about collective impact has focused on what people do to achieve it. This is not surprising because many people crave the comfort and certainty of formulas, recipes, and best practices – even though these are not very helpful in addressing complex issues. Underlying and supporting all of the doing is being the kind of people who can do what is necessary. I could use several of the eight principles that Brady and Splansky Juster identified to illustrate what I mean but I will focus on this one to make my point: “Include community members in the collaborative.” Specifically, the authors define community members as “those whose lives are most directly and deeply affected by the problem addressed by the initiative.” I fully agree with this principle but, realistically, it is difficult to do and often resisted. The most common protests to doing this are typically related to logistics: “We meet during the weekdays, can they come at the same time?,” “How would they get here?”, “Could they come to where we meet?”, and “Do they really have the experience to know how to interact with our group?” The answers are really pretty straightforward to these barriers: “Change you meeting time, provide transportation and/or make the location more convenient to community members, educate members about the content, and orient them to, even train them in, the process of your meetings.” I do not believe the logistics are really to blame. I believe the problem lies within the will of both individual members and the group. Remember the old saying, “Where there is a will, there is a way?”
Possessing a collaborative posture is about being the kind of people who find the will to do what it takes to engage people in the community and to actually do the other principles.
What does it take to achieve a collaborative posture? Let me suggest at least three things:
Checked Egos. Ego is fueled by the perceived right to authority. There are many things that cause us to feel like we have a right to make decisions on behalf of others. Some of these things include, but are not limited to, education, wealth, status, race, formal position, the depth of one’s personal experience, and even the honor of membership in a social change collaborative group that is going to “help” others. When we humans come together in a group to make decisions that affect the lives of others, it is so easy to feel like we have been given authority over others, even if only a little.
When we “check” our egos, we willingly lay down the right to have the final word in decisions that affect the lives of others.
When we must make those decisions, we do so as inclusively as possible and, even then, with a sense of awe, respect, and care. I know. This does not sound practicable in a world that moves as fast as ours. Yet we mostly accomplish this capacity by living into an attitude of humility.
Crossed Boundaries. To cross boundaries in collaborative work is to invite others to work with us, and especially those who are not like us and may not even trust us. Why in the world would we ever do that? Simple; because we cannot make change happen by ourselves. It is completely human, when we form groups, to gravitate toward those most like us and whom we find most agreeable. This ensures our comfort in the group and comfort is important. You know what I am talking about; you have seen it yourself. A coalition or collaboration forms by gathering “the usual suspects,” those individuals and groups already known to one another because they have partnered on the same or similar issues in the past. They know before they ever meet they are all “on the same page.” This is not horrible, but it is very inadequate because it often leads to doing “business as usual.” What if a collaborative group were to form among individuals and groups who shared a similar goal but had very different ideas for how to accomplish it? For one thing, everyone would feel a lot less comfortable.
I used to teach groups that the first step to crossing boundaries was to take a good look at their group and see who was not in it and yet should be. I have given up on that strategy. There is a stronger tendency toward group self-preservation than I ever estimated. Once it has achieved a particular comfort, it fights to maintain the status quo. As a result, groups often conclude most everyone who should be in the group is already in the group.
What I have found to be more effective in teaching groups about boundary crossing is to ask this question: “What individuals or groups do you feel most uncomfortable including in your collaborative group, even though they may agree with your ultimate goal?” Once they have listed those individuals or groups, I encourage them to reach out to them and begin the process of inviting them to participate.
Crossing boundaries has to take us out of our comfort zone or else we have not crossed anything.
Shared Power. Power sharing is rooted in a deeply held belief in the expertise of others. A few years ago I was in a meeting with the leadership team of a collaborative group that was responsible for implementing social service interventions in an urban community. I had just finished a day-long meeting with the full collaborative group and, during this debrief, I had merely observed to the leadership team that I did not meet any people in the group who actually lived in the community they were serving. The response I received was stunning in its arrogance as a team member pounded the table and said, “Why would we have them here? We are the experts!” Oh boy.
When we convene our collective impact and collaborative groups, we tend to seek out experts on the issue we are trying to address. This makes sense because we want the very best to help us solve the difficult, complex challenges we are facing. Experts are people with extensive skills and/or knowledge of a specific field, area, or issue. Does expertise include status, wealth, connections, and even celebrity? We must believe it does because we often prioritize recruitment of members with these qualifications. While it is important to include them in our collaborative groups, I do not believe any single area of expertise (including these) qualifies anyone to hold power over the lives of others.
Do we also believe in the expertise of the people who are living day-to-day with the issue our group is working to address? Do we believe drug addicts understand the addictive process better than we do and have solutions to offer? Do we believe the observations of people living in poverty concerning how policies and practices in our community are actually barriers to their getting out of poverty? Do we believe gang members and victims have insights on how to stop the violence? Do we believe poor people can offer solutions to their own situation? Do we believe people struggling with obesity know something about eating healthier? Do we believe parents of children who have been removed from the home and placed into the foster care system can also help us think of better ways to do child welfare in our communities? Or do we merely see all of these as people who need the help only we, the experts, can give them?
If we do not believe that every person has expertise, then we will cling to power, and our community and our collaborative initiative will struggle. When we release the power and share it with others, we will not only learn from one another but we will grow participation and ownership of the solutions.
Vu Le of “Nonprofits with Balls,” has observed that, in many collective impact collaborations, “Equity gets shoehorned in as an afterthought…Budgets have been approved. Funding has been allocated. Agendas have been set without all the people who should have been there. The ship has sailed.” As much as I welcome and support the implementation of the Collective Impact Principles of Practice, I believe they will work so much better in the hands of practitioners who possess a genuine collaborative posture. Without the collaborative posture, I fear they are little more than a new checklist of things to do.
Tell me…what do you think?