One of the benefits of my profession is working alongside talented people who are committed to making a positive difference in the world, like developing a sustainable regional economy, building racial equality, or addressing climate change. One of my colleagues, who is an avid networker and big picture thinker, noticed a gap in the system we were working to change. The discovery sparked an idea to form a cross-sector collaboration initiative that could potentially shift the system in a positive direction.
Beyond the fundamentals of organizing and facilitating meetings there are important details to consider when starting a new initiative that can make or break a collaborative effort.
1. Get to know the system you’re seeking to influence and key actors before bringing people together
Before our first gathering, we met with invitees separately to learn more about their work and what they wanted to get out of these meetings. A valuable lesson learned is that we could have taken our preparation for this meeting to the next level by also gathering information that enables everyone to develop a shared understanding of the system. Had we done this, we would have made better use of everyone’s time by engaging participants in collectively making sense of data collected through individual meetings to broaden and deepen our knowledge of the issue we’re working on.
2. Meet with people who represent the diversity of the system you’re working to change
Instead of only meeting with the people already in your network, broaden outreach conversations to include people beyond your immediate contact list who are acting on or are affected by the issue you’re working to address. While it’s helpful to start with the people you already know to learn about their experience with the collaboration topic, be sure to ask who else should be part of this conversation. Another valuable lesson learned that my colleagues and I will implement in the future is to deliberately seek out people who are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, geography, and who have been directly impacted by the problem we’re working to solve (lived experience), rather than limiting our group to people who have technical knowledge and skills (content expertise).
3. Approach conversations with potential collaboration participants from a place of curiosity and willingness to learn
Although you and your colleagues will likely already be familiar with the topic of your collaboration initiative, it’s important to not let this get in the way of broadening the depth and breadth of your own and others’ knowledge. Dr. Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, refers to this practice as “showing here and now humility”. In a collaboration context this involves better understanding opportunities and challenges faced, including participants’ experience with the collaboration topic. I saw my lack of knowledge about the issue we were working on as a disadvantage instead of an advantage that could be better used to surface assumptions about our work and ask clarification questions to check for a shared understanding.
4. Set expectations for working together early on
Expectation setting is a two-way street that includes commitments that collaboration participants agree to make (e.g., showing up for meetings on time and being prepared to actively participate) and commitments that the host organization agrees to make (e.g., setting a regular cadence for meetings and sending out meeting notes in a timely manner).
In addition to making commitments about how collaboration participants will work together, including making decisions and solving problems, it’s also a good idea to communicate early on that collaboration is generally difficult, messy, and sometimes involves putting collective goals ahead of personal ones for the good of the group. To avoid miscommunication and misunderstanding it’s important to discuss expectations early on. Had we found out what participants were expecting from participating in the collaborative initiative at the very beginning, we could have more easily addressed differences in expectations that were discovered later on.
5. Make time for participants to get to know each other and work together
Making time for both relationship building and getting collaboration work done can be difficult when participants don’t have time to meet for very long. If this is the case with your group, consider balancing time spent for connection (e.g., starting a meeting with a check-in) and information sharing (e.g., sharing participant updates or exchanging needs and offers). Another option is to focus on relationship building during early meetings to help build trust for working together later on. As per the previous tip, communicate which option is decided or ask participants for their feedback.
6. Build a strong team to work alongside you in developing a new multi-stakeholder collaboration
Not long after we had been hosting meetings for a group of interested participants, I noticed a dip in the group’s energy. Because my colleague and I had a high level of mutual trust, consistently practiced open communication, and demonstrated a high regard for each other- particularly when there are differences of opinion – this made it easier to have what could have been a difficult conversation about implementing the lessons learned described above. For more information about team building as part of multi-stakeholder collaboration, see this SEE Change Magazine piece.
7. Capture and document lessons learned that can be applied to your next collaboration experience
Similar to teamwork, it’s important to create the space to reflect on lessons learned. This pertains to both the work of collaboration (e.g., what was achieved) and the collaboration process (e.g., how well participants know each other as a function of connectedness, quality of relationships developed). Some ways to capture and document lessons learned include having a brief check-out at the end of a meeting (e.g., one work that best describes how you’re feeling, extent to which expectations were met via emojis), a post-meeting survey, and periodically meeting with participants individually for an in-depth feedback conversation. In addition to these methods, I journal about what did and didn’t work as part of recording my professional growth.
Kimberley Jutze is a social activist and founder of Shifting Patterns Consulting, a Certified B Corporation that builds strong collaborative teams and networks. She partners with changemakers to solve complex problems involving social justice and climate change by helping them to develop the relationships, strategies, and organizational structures and processes that are essential for working better together. You can follow her on Twitter at @ShiftPatConsult and LinkedIn.