It’s been almost three years since I brought together a group of friends interested in writing about creating change using collaborative methods. That group of friends became the first group of bloggers for UnSectored, which, three years later, has grown into much more than I could have expected. UnSectored now has a volunteer team of six and has published over 250 posts exploring social change through sectoral and organizational collaboration. We’ve hosted dozens of events to help people connect with others interested in working between and beyond sectors to create large-scale change.
After three years of involvement, I’ve decided to step down from my day-to-day responsibilities managing UnSectored. Starting next week, I will be working at Living Cities as a part of its Integration Initiative. Kathy Chamberlain, UnSectored’s Managing Director, will take over my day-to-day responsibilities, and I can’t wait to see where she takes the organization.
At this moment of reflection, I wanted to take some time to share what I see as the key lessons I’ve learned over the past three years working on UnSectored. Not only does UnSectored encourage discussion about collaboration, it is a collaborative initiative itself. I’ve divided up my lessons learned into two sections: Lessons about collaboration, and lessons about running a collaborative organization. I hope you enjoy, and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.
Lessons about collaboration:
Collaboration is a process, not an outcome
This seems obvious, but has some important implications. The act of collaborating can be used in almost any scenario, whether to provide social services or put on a multi-stakeholder event. Successful collaborations, regardless of the focus area, have similar characteristics that can be applied to diverse situations. I won’t go into the criteria that form a successful collaboration here, but I encourage you to check out this postfrom my Living Cities colleague, Tynesia Boyea-Robinson, on how to apply collective impact to any policy problem.
Ego over everything
At almost every in-person UnSectored discussion we had, the problem of ego came up. Either organizational arrogance or individual arrogance will be a problem for any collaborative initiative. Ego can cause problems even when you’ve established complete buy-in from all parities. All organizations have individual motives for participating in a collaboration, and sometimes their actions may be focused on serving their own needs rather than the greater good of the partnership. Organizations within a collaboration must navigate the constant tension between acting on self-serving motivations and sacrificing for the collaborative.
Trust is foundational
The antidote to ego is trust. A successful collaboration will require that all parties involved trust each other to do what is right by all members. Without this trust, collaborations cannot be successful. Trust is particularly important for the long-term initiatives focused on solving system-level problems, as these require constant re-negotiation of terms and goals as the reality of the real world changes over time. Trust between partners is also the only way to navigate the tension between selfishness and selflessness. (For more on trust, check out UnSectored blogger and all around good guy Mark Hecker’s latest post on the topic.)
This also seems obvious, but when you’re in the third meeting in as many weeks re-explaining the goals for your collaboration, you’ll need a little patience. Everyone has a different framework for thinking about problems, and it takes time to ensure that all organizations are aligned on how to think about the tasks at hand. Gaining clarity about the problem, the goals and the activities at the beginning of a collaboration will help to minimize those seemingly unnecessary conversations down the line.
There’s hype, but there’s also integrity
To me, the opposite of hype is integrity. The last three years have certainly produced a lot of hype around collaboration, partnership building and collective impact. The social sector latches on to “it” ideas, only to discard them a few years later once something new comes along. Many people in our UnSectored conversations expressed the concern that collaboration was just another fad that would disappear into the fog of old ideas in a few years.
While there is quite a bit of hype around the idea, there is a lot of integrity behind existing collaborations and their associated lessons learned. Collaboration may not be in vogue for much longer, but the power of collaboration to solve social problems will not diminish. The integrity of collaboration can be seen in two recent case studies on collaborative initiatives, one from my previous employer, VPP, and one from my new employer, Living Cities.
Jeff Raderstrong is the co-founder of UnSectored and joins Living Cities as Program Associate for The Integration Initiative. You can read the full piece here: http://jraders.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/three-years-of-lessons-on-collaboration/.