Exploring Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration with My Idols

Dreams really do come true! This week I had the incredible opportunity to fly to San Francisco for a training with my facilitation idols Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes of the firm Community at Work. Sam is the author of my facilitation bible, which literally sits on my table at all times, The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making. I have used this book to design virtually every facilitation I have ever done and have taught from it for undergraduate and graduate classes across multiple departments. Nelli was my first real facilitation instructor, having been brought up by former CRES Director Tim Hicks back in spring 2014. To say the least, this was probably the most influential 20 hours of my education. Thus spending four days in the company of these two, and a dozen engaging, high-level change agents from across the country (albeit mainly the Bay area), was an experience I never thought I’d get to have.

This training, “Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration: Strategies, Design Principles, and Best Practices,” covered a lot of ground. Although the first day included a lot of material I am already familiar with (the Groan Zone, participation formats, active listening, and asking questions), the next three days were dedicated to looking at multi-stakeholder collaboration in ways I’ve either never thought of before or have never been able to adequately articulate.

At the crux of the training was a graphical language to understand the design and evolution of collaborative efforts. Various colored dots, arrows, and brackets symbolize the different working dynamics of these groups and can be ordered to be representative, if not perfectly descriptive, of most any multi-stakeholder effort. Like designing a single facilitated event, this language has helped me to appreciate the design nature of long-term efforts. I will be really interested to see how I can apply this language and approach to some of the collaborative efforts I am a part of, especially the newly launched Aquatic Hub. I worry that this language will not align with their interests and habits of design thinking. Sam and Nelli’s clients come to them because they are seeking this level of work, my clients come to me because they don’t know how to run a single meeting. In terms of the “Architecture of Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration,” this is a very low bar (level 2 to be precise) for expectations and also a relatively weak foundation for long-term, high impact efforts.

One of my final big take-aways from this training is the value of a “thinking buddy.” Throughout the training we would be paired up with thinking buddies, whose job it was to purely help us do our best thinking. I have long adopted Sam’s definition of a facilitator being someone who helps a group of people to do their best thinking, but I have not applied that concept to a single individual with such intention. During one of the activities, I was paired up with someone who I really enjoyed working with, we just clicked. When Sam went to change our thinking buddies for the second part of that activity, I protested and asked to stay with my current partner. He called me out and said that, while not uncommon, this suggests deeper issues of distrust in others and in terms of collaboration can be harmful because it leads essentially to cliques that don’t support the multi-stakeholder nature of this work. He was right, my next thinking partner did a great job of helping me think. This was an especially eye-opening partnership given how different our cultural backgrounds were (Silicon Valley ivy league vs. Willamette Valley goat farmer), which helped me to remember that all people, when given the chance, can connect and support one another no matter (and maybe even because of) differences.

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