Exploring Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration with My Idols (Spring 2017, week 5)

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.

Collaborative Governance: Structure, Craft, and Changing Culture

Acton_Collaborative Governance-Structure, Craft, Changing Culture

In her study of the outcomes of collaborative processes on hydropower licensing, Ulibarri writes “For the purposes of effectiveness, ‘collaboration’ is more than simply having multiple people working together” (2015, p. 299). Indeed, over the past 20 years the concept of collaboration has taken off in the public sector in everything from policy making to implementation to service delivery (Emerson, Nabatchi, & Balogh, 2011). Collaborative processes, particularly collaborative governance, have become especially popular for cross-sector work aimed at tackling “wicked problems” that cannot effectively be addressed by a single sector (Ansell & Gash, 2007; Crosby & Bryson, 2010). However, while it has become increasingly popular, as Ulibarri points out successful collaboration is not a simple process and can result in equally complex outcomes. To better understand the role of collaboration in today’s public administration world this paper examines collaborative processes through the three lenses of structure, craft, and culture. It is discovered that successful collaborative processes are first structured around a partnership model that encourages a non-linear, cyclical process. Second, from this structure, well-designed collaborative processes encourage the development of a unique type of leadership style or managerial craft, one that is facilitative, transformative, and learning focused. Finally, a collaborative governance structure that has participants adopt this facilitative craft produces outcomes that are more than just holistic, effective, and efficient policies—participants get to enjoy the creation of a collaborative, trust-based culture not only between public sector administrators, but can also stretch across sectors, throughout organizations, and among traditional adversaries. With more attention on democratic deliberation and stakeholder participation, it is found that collaborative processes can possibly even encourage trust between everyday citizens and their government.

Quivira Coalition: A Case Study of Collaboration and Paradox

Acton_Quivira Coalition- A Case Study of Collaboration and Paradox in the SW

“You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land. To save either, you must save both.” — Wendell Berry

For more than twenty years there has been a standoff between environmentalists and ranchers in the Southwest. At issue is the use of land for grazing cattle, which has long been framed as either cattle or no cattle, with no option in the middle. Amidst this, a small collaborative group called the Quivira Coalition has turned bitter enemies into partners. The small group who started the Quivira Coalition believed that there was truth in both the positions of ranchers and environmentalists — that cattle could be raised in semi-desert rangelands in a sustainable and ecological way.  It would likely be a new way of doing things, a developing art of progressive ranch management, but there was potential for it to succeed. Against all odds, the Quivira Coalition found a way to help their New Mexican community slowly embrace their contradictions. To understand how they continue to accomplish this feat, this paper first explores the concept of collaboration, then focuses on the case of the Quivira Coalition itself, and finally examines how the group fits into a larger discussion of collaborative organizations.

A paradox tells us that the multiple worldviews that drive us to conflict can all be true simultaneously, and that the multiple identities that make enemies of the other can be part of a larger, more inclusive identity. Both sides of the grazing debate viewed man as external to nature, as needing either to be removed from nature to ensure its preservation or to be above nature to generate wealth from the land.  The profound philosophical differences in these perspectives made it seem impossible to reconcile interests.  However, with a vision for a “New Ranch,” the Quivira Coalition successfully forges a third position in this polarized conflict, demonstrating that this paradox could in fact be restored and managed.  As an action-oriented collaborative, they are a reminder that we must “break down the artificial dichotomy between wilderness and working landscapes, recognize our place in nature, and take responsibility for it” (Sheridan, 2007, p. 134).  Through education, innovation, and a lot of patience, they have shown a community how to embrace their contradictions through a new collaborative mindset, and be stronger and more resilient for it.

Quivira Map

Part of this case study involved creating my own definition for collaboration:

Collaboration is a mindset that embraces learning, values systems thinking, and encourages problem solving by engaging diverse stakeholders in network building and information sharing to foster a sense of shared ownership in the future of a community.

Several key principles are worth highlighting with this definition. First, I present collaboration as not simply a process or even approach but rather a mindset, in order to convey the depth of perspective change required to undertake successful collaborative projects and be a collaborative leader.  This mindset does not start with assumed answers, but instead appreciates that the complexity of situations requires constant learning, constant assessment of the way things fit together, and a constant focus on the potential for future solutions.  Second, the processes of networking and sharing are examples of ongoing relationship building with an honesty that allows stakeholders to focus on underlying issues and values, rather than solely on positions. Finally, collaboration has the potential to do more than implement results or produce a product. If taken far enough, it can fundamentally change a stakeholder’s perception of identity and foster appreciation of both their inclusion in a community and their shared ownership in the future of that community.