‘We dont work with people who suck’ says Cheryl Dahle founder of Future of Fish, describing one of her principles for collaboration learnt through trial and error on her systems change project.
At The Finance Innovation Lab we developed a similar design principle for picking our Lab Fellows – peers who were already doing exciting work in the world of innovative finance. We only accepted people who all four co-founders liked. People we considered our friends.
Science this aint, but it works. Relationships matter in every organisation, but building strong collaborations is a particularly important for system innovators.
Why is collaboration so important?
- Change won’t happen if the same people are doing the same things. In systemic innovation you need to form new groups of people who are motivated to change the same thing. It’s crucial that these people collaborate well and create the policies, enterprises and new organisational structures that make an alternative to the status quo. The relationships within these groups and between the people who are trying to help them succeed, are crucial for their success.
- Those people leading systems change projects need to work out how to do it. There is no clear blueprint for this kind of work so it often requires a transfer of knowledge from those with experience of how to, to those who are learning. You can do this by hiring a consultant, partnering with someone who has more experience, or combining your ideas between yourselves to come up with a theory of change and strategy. Whichever way you choose, you need collaboration skills to make this happen.
But it isn’t easy
Every single collaboration I’ve been involved in The Finance Innovation Lab, has suffered serious breakdown at some point. And by serious I mean the type that wakes you up at 3am and stops you from getting back to sleep. Some have broken down so badly that I still don’t speak to the people I used to work with.
So there I’ve said it. An embarrassing track record. But this would be worth nothing if I hadn’t learnt something from it.
Here are some lessons I’ve learnt the hard way;
- Small group, shared intention
When the purpose of the organisation is undefined, tension always emerges. Ambiguity allows people to project their own objectives onto plans. Eventually consensus is reached and once a clear path is chosen this inevitably shakes people off the project who don’t agree with the strategy. This can be particularly painful when people have invested a great deal of time in getting to that point. If you are designing a project based on the principle of emergence, you have to just accept that this will happen. You can’t start with all the pieces in place. So how can you design to avoid this?
Start small. Build a core team (3 people is an ideal number) and find your shared intention. Build the relationships between members of that team as a priority. Go on a retreat together. Meet each others’ families. Become friends. Test all your ideas against that intention. Chuck out the ones that are a distraction. Once the core is strong then you can invite others in. If you need help to understand the issue you’re working on, then go out and talk to others’, hold roundtables, interview, but don’t invite everyone who agrees with you to join the core. You won’t get anything done.
- When things go wrong, look to yourself first
A wonderful Psychologist Yitzak Mendelson taught me the concept of ‘hot spots’. These are points which when crossed by others, you react quickly and disproportionately to. You blow up, unreasonably. These, he explained, have their roots in your past and they often manifest as blind spots that others’ can see, but you probably can’t, or can and won’t try to change.
Close collaborations with people you are not used to working with, on something new and difficult, can bring these out in multicolour. Of course you will spot them in others’ and they will frustrate you, but sadly the only person you can change is yourself.
We in the Lab team have spent a great deal of time becoming acquainted with our own frailties and have shared them with each other. Are a result we know each others’ strengths and weaknesses and are able to pick up where others aren’t strong and support one another as we try to shift these patterns in our own behaviour.
- Set boundaries around money and intellectual property
The muddy side of co-creation.
When I worked in marketing there were text books on how to do it. In fact I studied a Masters in it. We learnt about Porters Five Forces, the Five P’s, how to write a marketing strategy and used a whole bunch of case studies to work out what we’d do next.
The same is not true for systems change. Theory exists, but teachers are in short supply, case studies are thin on the ground and systems are so different that consultants and practitioners alike have no choice but to learn on the job.
We’ve worked with a series of consultants since we launched the Lab. I say consultants because I don’t have another word. But this does them a huge injustice. In fact they became close friends and confidants because the work creates that kind of closeness. They held our nerve when our strategy was new and our community critical, helped us work out the next steps from a cluster of hunches and individual intuition and taught us how to lead the project with confidence from our own personal intention. We collaborated together.
The outcome of all this work is intellectual property. A blend of frameworks, strategies and design principles that both parties have enriched and co-developed as a result of practice. And it’s not clear who can lay claims on it, describe it as their methodology, talk about it as their success.
The only way to counter this is to preempt it. Know that it will happen, talk about it at the start and a set a clear a boundary that everyone is satisfied with.
- Make your value known
The work of a system innovator is often undervalued.
We do things like introduce people across a network, host and design conferences, workshops and incubators, champion entrepreneurs, raise awareness of issues or solutions. These things can be invisible because they’re so hard to track. But our work is the difference between status quo and something new. What I’ve learned over and over again is that you don’t get to a different end unless you try a different means.
But still a pattern exists where the person with the most content knowledge will try to override the strategy of the systems innovator. Once a track record of success is established, the same people become happier about handing over control of the process, but this convincing period wastes valuable time and energy.
It’s crucial therefore that you establish roles at the outset. Agree that you have final sign off on process design and keep referring back to this agreement. Build confidence in your way of doing things by stating your objectives at the start of each activity you design and check in at the end with the core team to reflect on what worked and what didn’t.
I know I don’t have all the answers about how to make collaboration work for systems change. But I do know that a frank conversation about the things I know will turn up, is a good start.