Over the past year and a half, I’ve been watching from the sidelines as The Integration Initiative launched and has taken shape. As a researcher with an interest in collaborations for social innovation, I’m intrigued by Living Cities’ potentially game-changing one table approach. It’s challenging enough to get all of the relevant stakeholders at the same table, but what happens next? What strategies do stakeholders utilize to work through conflict? What do stakeholders learn from each other, and how do they use this knowledge to innovate? Collaborating with individuals from different organizations with varied beliefs, opinions, resources and expertise to grapple with multi-layered, complex issues is no easy task!

Adaptive leadership is a powerful framework for leading through complexity, and serves as the cornerstone of the one table approach. The framework takes into account the realities of complex social problems by suspending the presumption that leaders already have the right answers or a clear vision of the desired results. Leaders work towards solutions by being open to learning and rethinking prior assumptions.

Living Cities invited me to collaborate on a series of interviews with the Project Directors from each of The Integration Initiative sites. My first interview was with Monique Baptiste, Project Director of the Newark Integration Initiative. The initiative is focused on addressing the unhealthy conditions facing low-income city residents by coordinating information and investments to create healthy housing, schools, and food options in Newark’s communities with the goal of improving the economic and social well-being of the city. During our interview, we discussed the dynamics of Newark’s one table approach and their application of the adaptive leadership framework.

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_How would you describe the process of building your table? _

Monique: Over the past year and a half, the membership of the table has changed pretty dramatically. When we first convened stakeholders, it was for the purpose of trying to achieve a diverse representation and there was less attention paid to the actual contribution of those stakeholders. When we started asking questions about why the conditions in the city existed and what created the current environment that we were trying to fix, that’s when we started identifying additional stakeholders to engage.

There’s a lot of building the bike while we’re riding it, simply because a lot of the organizations around the table are still learning how to engage sectors that they do not ordinarily engage. So, there’s a lot of learning as we’re moving forward and understanding where there are synergies that tap into as many sectors as possible.

_What attracted stakeholders to the table, and what has kept them there? _

Monique: I don’t think it’s been hard to get them to participate. What has brought folks to the table is the fact that this initiative has no desire to reinvent the wheel, and the most important component of this initiative is, in fact, the table. People are beginning to think “if I’m not at the table, I’m not going to be able to contribute to the shift in Newark and I may be left behind.”

We initially engaged organizations by meeting them where they are, which involves acknowledging, accepting and validating each organizational agenda and its contributions to the overall agenda. We’re meeting them where they are and tying these agendas together using a common language and systemic threads, so that they have a vested interest in this work.

_How have you been applying the adaptive leadership frame? _

Monique: Ultimately, the adaptive leadership framework helps us navigate through conflict. Considering that we don’t really know what to expect since so much of this is new for all of the folks who are around the table, the framework is a method to address conflict, frictions, tensions and obstacles head on. It’s nice to have a framework to give us the definition of where we are. It’s very easy to be in a situation of conflict that could derail the project and you might not know you’re in it because of how far in you are. It also validates those conflicts as a necessary component of the process. It’s actually letting us reach further mile markers than we have in the past.

_Do you see convergence of stakeholders’ goals after they’ve worked through a conflict? _

Monique: We have engaged organizations that have a long-term ten-year trajectory and others that have a short-term two-year trajectory. Getting organizations with a shorter term focus to understand that their step is necessary to get to the long-term goal, and realize that we’re not in conflict is where convergence happens. Take our work around health. We have some organizations that are focused on providing greater access to health care to low-income children and families in some of our most distressed communities. These organizations are working to affect the present. We have other organizations that are focused on preparing our local and regional health system for the period when the Affordable Care Act takes effect. They are working to affect the future. Before the Newark Integration Initiative, these organizations would have run in parallel lanes on the same track. Now, through the work of the Initiative, we have shown our partners that this is a community relay, not a one-man sprint, and we have to work together as a team, leveraging our work and resources if we are going to finish the race successfully.

_What other successes has the table had? _

Monique: One definite success has been increased alignment locally, particularly among funding sources. Funding sources in Newark have a tendency to chart their own course and not work collaboratively. I think since the inception of this initiative, there’s been a pretty noticeable shift to more leveraged resources, instead of putting money towards a problem without thinking strategically about it. Prudential Foundation, our lead philanthropic organization, has worked hard to engage other funders that are heavily invested in Newark around issues related to health and wellness in our low-income neighborhoods. We can align our work with organizations like the Victoria Foundation, the Dodge Foundation, and the Foundation for Newark’s Future, which concentrate on other content areas, such as education reform or workforce development. This alignment has created a new sense of cooperation, with each foundation committed to doing its part to address Newark’s greatest challenges.

I think there’s something to be said about the progress we’re making simply based on the ability to have one conversation as opposed to seven different conversations as would’ve happened in the past. We’re getting to solutions faster than before this initiative started, or even when this initiative first began.

If you could give some advice to a community that’s trying to improve their collaborations, based on your experience so far, what would that piece of advice be?

Monique: On the front end, it’s essential to invest your time getting buy-in from your big champions. I would also say that understanding a framework to help organizations and stakeholders embrace and embark upon conflict is essential once you start your process. Everyone really needs to know that the purpose of the table is not just to validate people and make people feel better about the work that they’re doing; the purpose of the table should also be to challenge norms and come to new understandings.

_In building their table with the adaptive framework in mind, Newark is learning what it takes to identify and coordinate the right stakeholders in real time. It is evident that this process alone is changing how institutions in the city interact with one another, and is positioning the initiative to break down silos and push forward a common agenda. Keep an eye out for our next insider look of the one table approach in action. _

Erin Henry is a PhD Candidate, Organizational Behavior and Sociology, at Harvard Business School