Last week, I attended a conference by The Natural Step called Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability . The conference drew a wide variety of Canadian practitioners working on effective sustainability collaborations to advance sustainability efforts to Guelph. It was an inspirational conference, with so many incredible speakers. As I sat down to write up my notes from the conference I found myself struggling to capture all of the great insights from this excellent set of conference presenters. It will certainly take more than one blog entry to do justice to all the great thoughts! So I’ve decided to create a little series of blogs I’ll call “News from the Collaboration Trenches.”
I’m using the term “trenches” to refer to the fact that we’re getting into the dirt and gore, the depths. One thing I appreciated about all of the presenters was their generosity of insight into the challenge and pitfalls of working in groups. “Collaboration” sometimes conjures up that Pollyanna feeling, as if we are all getting together to have a tea party. But the reality is that effective collaboration takes a strange and hard-won combination of tough-minded negotiation, open-hearted empathy, patience, self-awareness, and a dash of constructive manipulation.
Tim Brodhead, past-president of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and acknowledged elder of strategic innovation in Canada (according to The Natural Step’s ED Chad Park) set the tone at the conference’s first session. He talked about how even the most seasoned experts run into trouble when they attempt to leverage their professional relationships into broader organizational change, or when they assume that the management of a collaboration can be handled casually.
Tim highlighted three key lessons stemming from his experience developing the partnerships that resulted in Social Innovation Generation:
- Good relationships among individuals are not enough. Each person carries institutional baggage; they have to report back and can’t act alone. This is a great reminder that it’s important to allow adequate time in the collaboration schedule for each representative to go back and interact within their own sphere of influence.
- Not everyone has to collaborate on everything. The collaborative process is organic and should only happen where it makes sense. This means that collaborators need to consider the investment, purpose, and outcomes of their collaboration very carefully, and create some flexibility so that members can engage in different, appropriate ways.
- Without the “glue” it falls apart. A good collaboration needs to have a connector. A good connector is someone dedicated to holding things together and the right skills to do so. This insight helps reinforce the idea of the emerging partnership brokering field, and how multi-sectoral groups can benefit from including people with specialized partnership-brokering skills.
I think these three great insights are enough to reflect on — for now — as we soldier on with our myriad sustainability collaborations.
Stay tuned for some more great insights from Adam Kahane, Partner, Reos Partners; Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, founder of The Natural Step; David Hughes, CEO, Pathways to Education and Former CEO, Habitat for Humanity; Tim Draimin, Executive Director, Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National; Avrim Lazar, Former CEO, Forest Products Association for Canada and champion of the Canadian Boreal Initiative; and Bruce Lourie, President of the Ivey Foundation.
And thanks, of course, to The Natural Step for offering us such a rich and useful conference.