Rising to the challenge: adapting your collaboration model to context
With a world as complex and troubled as ours, developing a solution to the issues you’re passionate about can be an overwhelming challenge. As we know from Cynthia Rayner’s session on Systems Changing Collaborations,there’s no one way to address any problem. That’s the beauty and complexity of systems change. In other words, there’s no one-size-fits-all collaboration model. This was abundantly clear in conversation with Steve Waddell and Sandip Pattanayak, whose collaboration models were developed in response to their context.
As collaboration leads in Catalyst 2030 initiatives, they’ve developed two differing approaches to their respective situations. Steve Waddell is the collaboration lead for the Bounce Beyond to Next Economies initiative, which seeks to catalyse the transition to a regenerative economy through the convening of cross-sector and cross-geography stakeholders. This is a long-term endeavour. Sandip Pattanayak on the other hand, works at a much faster pace. The COVID Action Collaboration was initiated as a multi-stakeholder approach to an emergency response, seeking to achieve vaccine equity, care and social protection for 10 million individuals in India.
Starting with the most obvious difference, their initiatives are at polar opposites of the time spectrum. Steve is working towards a long-term trajectory, while Sandip is operating to achieve a rapid emergency response. The way Steve and Sandip approached design, decision making, delegating of roles and responsibilities and identifying the right collaboration partners differed. However, there were, of course, overlaps and similarities too.
Setting up, designing and operationalising your collaboration
Once you’ve identified the “right” collaboration partners, it can be a challenge to kick start your collaboration. For Steve and the Bounce Beyond collaborators, the heart of their collaboration model was about weaving together and aligning existing initiatives for systems level transformation. As a result, in building their collaboration and getting collaborators onboard, they developed their own Collaboration Agreements based on a memorandum of understanding. These agreements were co-developed with the potential collaborator to ensure a mutual understanding and integration of each other’s goals in their operating plans. They also clearly articulated the potential value of collaborating together.
Sharing from his previous experience in networked approaches to systems change, Steve mentioned that when there’s a group of people or organisations working towards a common goal, they can often lose sight of the trees for the forest. They become so focused on the collective goal that they don’t give sufficient attention to their specific role and outcome. For Bounce Beyond that has an ambitious overarching goal with a long-horizon time frame, it made sense to take the time to flesh out each partner’s role and specific outcomes in service of the overarching mission.
When asked about how he identified potential collaboration partners ultimately, Steve had one primary piece of advice: be opportunistic. Weaving together initiatives with similar overarching goals that aren’t quite aligned in their day-to-day operations is tricky, so identifying and capitalising on the value of collaboration is key.
But how does all this work when the problem you’re seeking to solve is urgent in nature? When asked how he identified his fellow collaborators, Sandip also recognised the need for opportunism, but in a different way. Rather than taking the time to co-create collaboration agreements, Sandip and his team reached out to partners with whom they already had relationships. They then aligned them with a common goal through the use of a loose and emergent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).
In their efforts to deliver immediate relief and aid to rural communities affected by the pandemic, they identified people and organisations they had previously worked with who had access to resources, communities, and knowledge that they didn’t have. They asked that they share their resources freely with the collective to deliver aid. That was the primary and nearly only condition of the MoU. In short, for the urgency of this project, a loose charter suited the project better. “If people felt they were mission aligned and willing to contribute, they were welcome to join,” Sandip explained.
Finding the right collaborator
There’s no one “right” collaborator for any project, however, there are certain values and guiding principles that can help you make your decision. Everything varies when dealing with complexity and so do principles, depending on the nature of your collaboration. For Sandip, agility and ability to deliver were key, given that their collaboration was initiated to meet the immediate basic needs of individuals and particularly vulnerable communities.
When designing their collaboration, they developed a multi-layer Theory of Change approach and mapped which stakeholders were needed to deliver the project at a community, institutional and ecosystem levels. Their broad call for help and the benefit of having previous connections enabled them to convene a critical mass of mission-aligned people and organisations who could deliver aid. This Approach is really about building long-lasting relationships and reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of those you encounter in your ecosystem, or circle of influence, so that when disaster strikes, you can all be aligned to achieve a common goal.
Another aspect Sandip mentioned was the agency in determining your position within a collaboration. This required careful and attentive mapping of what the different roles and responsibilities were in delivering the outcomes of the collaboration. Once these were clearly articulated, potential collaborators were able to identify where they could add value, and crucially, where they could not. Self-selection and trust in self-knowledge as a collaborative partner ultimately increased the buy-in of individuals.
Much like Sandip, Steve recognised the critical role that trust plays in finding and working with the right collaborators. While the Covid Action Collab convened previous relationships where trust had already been established, Bounce Beyond for the most part, was in the business of building trust. From his experience, Steve identified three types of trust necessary for a strong collaboration:
- Trust in language: Collaborators build a common language, so when certain words (that can have multiple meanings) are used, everyone understands what is meant.
- Trust in intent: Collaborations are clear on each other’s shared values, and how said values are shaping the goal of the collaboration.
- Trust in ability: Collaborations trust that they are able to deliver on what they say they will deliver.
Through experience, these forms of trust will develop naturally, but as they’re a necessary condition in any collaboration, it’s good to reflect on your level of trust, and the kinds of trust you’re building with each other from the outset.
While it would be convenient to have a “silver bullet” collaboration model, what Steve and Sanip show us is that how you collaborate, and with whom you collaborate is entirely dependent on the context you’re operating in, and the problem you’re seeking to solve. Even in emergency situations, dedicating time to give sufficient attention to the roles and responsibilities and your guiding principles pays off; Because ultimately when working to achieve collective impact, a co-created model is an absolute necessity.
The Collaborations team within Catalyst 2030 is always looking for ways to foster deeper and more meaningful connections within the community. One of the ways to achieve this is through a series of workshops that allow for peer-to-peer learning and sharing on systems change collaboration creation and success: Learning for Collaborations. In February of 2022, Steve Waddell and Sandip Pattanayak spoke about their two differing models of collaboration.Their session, alongside previous and upcoming sessions can be viewed on our collaborations resources page. We’d love to see you there!