Early Lessons on Collaboration Experiment

Partner Engagement, Value Proposition, Self-organizing, Use of Technology and Content Strategy

“You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.” – Wayne Gretzky
 

I recently came across that quote and it really had an impact on me. To learn, you have to be willing to take risks, experiment, and take shots, even when the odds are against you. For the last couple of months, I have been part of a collaborative research initiative that is focused on experimentation and learning. Launched in 2009, Leadership for a New Era (LNE) is a three-year initiative focused on promoting leadership approaches that are inclusive, networked and collective. Through LNE we are partnering with key innovators in a variety of fields to produce short publications, assessment tools, and resource directories in four focal areas.

While we still have much ground to cover – and many more lessons to learn – this has been a fascinating journey for me and one that has taught me a lot about working collaboratively and modeling the type of collective leadership that we want to promote. The lessons span from content to technical and process areas, and I want to share some of them here to help shed some light on the topic of collaboration.

  • Know your audience and engage your collaboration partners early in the process

Our first focus area for this project is “Leadership and Race.” Our goal is to bring a race conscious lens to current leadership practices and to promote approaches; resources and tools that help leadership programs work to achieve racial justice. We are partnering with key innovators in the racial equity field, such as Research Center for Leadership in Action, the Kirwan Institute and Applied Research Center, to complement our expertise in the leadership development field. To guide the development of the publication, we first created a synthesis with key ideas and concepts. We then shared the synthesis with our partners to get their feedback and work together on finalizing the content. During our conversation with the partners it became clear that we had not clarified our intended audience – leadership programs. We realized that we needed to go back to the drawing board and restructure the piece in a way that directly speaks to leadership programs, addressing their issues and questions.

We worked closely with the partners to produce a much more targeted and powerful piece that will help leadership programs address issues of leadership and race. We didn’t make the first shot but that first draft was a start, and it allowed us to identify gaps and challenges that we needed to address in order to move forward. In the end, the content was clearer and more compelling than it had been in the original synthesis. This early experiment taught us two things: 1) we should engage our partners early on in the process to collectively identify the focus and audience of the piece and 2) we should have a clear vision of our audience and tailor our message for that audience. We have started to apply these learnings to our work on the second focus area, “Leadership and Networks.”

  • Define and communicate your value proposition

When you are dealing with the day-to-day issues and challenges of the collaborative process, it is easy to lose sight of the end goal. You have to make sure that you keep the end goal in mind, and the value proposition for each party involved in your project. For example, what motivates a funder to join LNE may be different from what motivates a key innovator in networks to become a partner in LNE. But, as it happens, we get caught up with the tactical issues of the work and forget the big picture…until something happens and everything comes into focus.

This became clear to me as I was sitting in a planning meeting for the next meeting on Leadership and Race. As I was listening to the team brainstorm ideas for the design and goal of the meeting, I suddenly had the feeling that I was not really connecting to the meeting, its goals or purpose. Then, one of the participants, in a moment of clarity, articulated the simplest yet powerful way of explaining why he, a grassroots organizer in the field of racial equity, was participating in LNE. He said (and I am paraphrasing) that he joined LNE and the planning team because he wants the research to come from a more grassroots perspective; from the actual issues and questions that emerge on a daily basis for people on the ground. He said that most of the current research is largely academic and not based on what it means to deal with issues of leadership and race on a practical level. This simple affirmation brought me back to the room, reconnected me with the issue and energized me to continue promoting LNE because yes, we do want the research to come from real people, real issues.

Having a clear value proposition for each stakeholder, and communicating it in simple terms, is a must in the collaborative process.

  • Encourage and support members to self-organize

We hosted a meeting early in 2010 to discuss initial ideas that came out of the Leadership and Race synthesis with a group of Bay Area leadership programs, consultants, and organizations focused on racial justice. The meeting was short but the energy and enthusiasm were pretty evident, to the extent that after the event a group of about five individuals volunteered to help organize a follow-up meeting. Since then, we have provided the technical and administrative support to allow the group to meet and plan the next meeting. While the process is slow, it has helped to clarify ideas for the entire Leadership and Race project, establish relationships between the planning team members – comprised of individuals from diverse backgrounds, and experiment with shared leadership. For me, this is the first time that I am a part of such a collective process, at least face-to-face, with a group of individuals who I didn’t even know before. I am not used to this way of interacting with groups, without one central ‘leader’ who has the ultimate say on decisions – and I have to say that it is refreshing to see that we all have the authority and responsibility to contribute, and that what we come up with is truly a product of our collaboration.

While collaboration may take longer to take off, I believe the product that comes out of the process is often much more powerful than what comes out of a more top-down, traditional approach.

  • Use technology wisely and provide proper training

Technology is a great ally in the collaborative process, but it is a supporter rather than a driver. Ideas and relationships are far more important than the technology that supports them.

With this in mind, we launched a wiki-based website to support LNE where anyone can register, add ideas or discussion threads, and contribute resources to the directories. We use this website as an important tool for advancing the work and centralizing the knowledge and people involved, but we also host face-to-face events to engage people on a more personal level. We have learned that technology can significantly scale our efforts and reach a greater audience, so we continue to invest in improving the information on the site and encouraging members to participate and join the site. We now have over 100 members and many of them have shared resources and engaged in conversations with other members. We know that some people are more comfortable with technology than others, so we hold introductory webinars to explain the technical features and also try to give a short training during our face-to-face events.

We still have a long way to go, but providing people with guidance and training is one element of any collaboration strategy that cannot be overlooked.

  • Identify and leverage messages that resonate

It has been fascinating to see what resonates when we present initial ideas from our research on Leadership and Race and Leadership and Networks. We have hosted approximately five meetings over the last couple of months because we want to begin testing the content and focus of the material with our audience while we are still developing the material – rather than simply presenting the final product.
Here are some of the ideas and questions that have resonated with participants:

  • Connection between racial equity and leadership:
    • “One of the things I was really struck by is that my organization does racial justice work and that’s part of our mission, but we have a Leadership Academy which is separate from the other work that we do, and we never stopped to make racial equity part of the mission of our Leadership Academy and so that was big for me – to get that I needed to start there.” (Bay Area Learning Circle participant)
  • Focus on collective leadership:
    • “I was really excited to see the focus – and LLC typically has this focus – on the collective nature of leadership. I think recently we started to move from an individual focus to a collective focus and I think that is absolutely critical when we are talking about issues of race.” (Bay Area Learning Circle participant)
    • “Leadership is about a process that is not limited to one individual.” (Seattle Learning Circle participant)
  • Leadership and Networks (Boston Learning Circle participants):
    • “Networked, inclusive, collective. Changing the face of leadership development.”
    • “There are no leaders in a network – just opportunities for leadership [interesting perspective].”
    • “The most productive networks operate at the edge between organization and emergence.”

This participatory approach offers a great opportunity to engage participants around core ideas in order to get real-time feedback, identify the messages that seem more relevant and/or controversial, and leverage those insights to guide your content strategy. It also provides a space to start building relationships across multiple players from similar and different backgrounds, and establishing the foundation for ongoing collaboration among them.
 
What other things have you experimented with in collaborative projects? What have you learned from your successes and mistakes? We would love to hear your stories!