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Wednesday 16 March 2016

Listen to noise and manage fluctuations

Those of us involved in collaborations need to differentiate between the noise surrounding and permeating our work and the changes and fluctuations going on within it.

Noise is mainly about people and their behaviour. It is about human errors and bad decisions, differing opinions, conflicts and arguments, differing expectations and demands. These can emanate from either outside or inside a collaboration and they will resonate within and around it. If listened to, analysed and learnt from, they will help clarify a collaboration's purpose, enhance its approach and strengthen its resolve.

Fluctuations are mainly about systems and their operation. They are about variations in systems, strategies, processes and administration, changes of role and function, changes to availability of budgets and resources, etc. If not carefully managed, these can cause an irregular rhythm within the heart of a collaboration, within the hub of its key partners, which can interrupt the flow of a collaboration's activities and cause pressures that amplify the resonating noise of human errors, bad decisions and conflicts, eventually creating a cacophonous chaos with terminal consequences.

So, differentiate between noise and fluctuation. Then listen to, analyse and learn from the former and carefully manage the latter.  

Intel sought to detect noise and fluctuations through a system of open and transparent meetings with both internal and external partners. At these meetings partners were encouraged to air their concerns and discuss their conflicts and disagreements. They were also encouraged to comment on the way collaborations were progressing and how well their various supporting systems were working. Concerns were addressed and improvements were agreed during the meetings, which meant areas of concern and conflict (the noise generated by the network of partners) were used as fuel to improve collaboration, and fluctuations and changes in supporting systems were carefully monitored and managed so that they did not unnecessarily amplify concerns and conflicts.

The UK National Health Service's system of Local Involvement Networks enables it to detect noise in the form of concerns, disagreements, errors and unforeseen negative consequences of decisions, etc., and use it to inform the ongoing development of care services. These networks also gain timely feedback about the effectiveness and consistency of the systems and processes that support the co-ordination of services and the collaboration of agencies.

Some collaborations have not only embraced noise but also made it part of the strategy creation process. A local metropolitan council knew there was significant noise being generated around the allocation and use of funds it had obtained to regenerate its area. There was a history of political game playing and less than perfect decision making, and personal and organisational disagreements and conflicts resonated around the allocation and use of the funds and the creation of the collaborations required to use them effectively. 

So the local authority decided to not only listen to this noise but embrace it and make it part of the strategy creation process. They held an open strategy event to which all current and potential partners and stakeholders were invited. People were encouraged to not only air their views and disagreements but also work together to create an effective collaborative strategy for allocating and using the regeneration funds effectively. The process was messy (and noisy) but a strategy was agreed and systems put in place to support it. As these systems were jointly identified and agreed, a strong foundation of transparency, trust and shared ownership was built which helped ensure they were effectively managed and consistently implemented.     

A community partnership in Aberdeen captured the noise resonating within and around its work and identified the fluctuations occurring within its systems by not only creating a citizens' panel that could comment upon its work but also allowing panel members direct access to its day-to-day activities. It encouraged panellists to visit where initiatives and projects were taking place, identify how things were going and how people were feeling and getting on, and pinpoint where any difficulties were being experienced. They were then asked to provide feedback and make suggestions about how things could be done more effectively and how supporting systems could be improved. In this way the noise surrounding the partnership's work was used to generate improvements to its activities and encourage reliability within its supporting systems.  

Various wiki-based approaches, or even straightforward blogs that invite replies and comments, can also help a collaboration listen to, analyse and learn from the noise generated within and around it. The added benefit of incorporating such IT/Internet based systems into a collaboration's noise detection is that they not only add another way of detecting noise but also provide a cushioning distance between the noise and those receiving it, which can help people reflect upon and respond constructively to it. 

It is interesting to note that many traditional institutions have been slow to take advantage of social media's ability to detect the noise generated around initiatives and issues. For example, many governmental and other public bodies have well-established processes in place to document comments made at public meetings or received through postal mail. They do not, however, always have the same processes in place for comments received through social media. Indeed, many of the statutory regulations related to the use of public funds for community engagement require people to arrange public meetings and request comments through postal mail. This can make institutions and their initiatives slow to detect the noise generated by their work and the early warnings it provides about possible errors of judgement and problems with systems and processes. This can lead to initiatives taking action to improve things too late or not taking action at all, so causing significant financial and reputational damage and encouraging dissatisfied stakeholders to take matters into their own hands.   

An example of the above is currently happening in Mexico, where government processes for engaging with citizens and involving them in policy and law making are old-fashioned, top-down and paper-based. Mexicans have the right to propose laws directly to their congress, bypassing local officials, but to do so they must gain 100,000 signatures written in ink on paper. As you can imagine, this is a significant hurdle to overcome and so far, unsurprisingly, only one law has been proposed in this way to the Mexican congress. This cumbersome and inaccessible process has amplified the noisy cries of dissatisfaction caused by the Mexican government's deep rooted corruption and consequential inefficiency. It has also, however, almost completely insulated the Mexican government from the consequences of the noise: muting and smothering it; stopping it from resonating within the corridors of power. 

The Mexican population, realising that its government is insulated from its noisy complaints and cries for reform by barriers of bureaucracy and avalanches of smothering paperwork, is taking matters into its own hands and using social media to get its message across and make change happen. Ordinary citizens have proposed a law that would enhance government transparency and help minimise corruption. They have made the form people need to sign in support of this proposed law available online through social media platforms such as Facebook, and they have asked people to download it, sign it and hand it in at official delivery points around the country. (Helpfully, Google Maps has been used to show where these delivery points are and how to get to them.)

If the Mexican government had done nothing more than initiate and own the process started by its electorate, it would have been quickly able to detect the noise of its population's cries for change and, even more importantly, react in a timely and effective manner, ironing out its flaws and inconsistencies, weakening its underpinning corruption and enhancing its credibility as a result.

Monday 7 March 2016

Challenge taboo triangles

Occasionally, when asking your collaborators about other people and organisations which could potentially become involved, you may be made aware of 'taboo triangles' associated with creating certain acquaintances and relationships. These occur when currently collaborating people or organisations feel uncomfortable with or even unable to countenance a certain person, group or organisation being invited into their existing relationships. 

It is worth exploring the reasons for and stories behind these warning signs or taboos. Are they valid? Are they erected by traditions that have become unquestioned rules? Are they in reality a barrier which seeks to restrict access to some form of power, influence or sought after resource? Are they based upon assumptions and preconceptions rather than reality?

Above all, are they worth taking the risk of challenging or even ignoring?

Very often, transforming taboo triangles into not only permitted but also thoroughly exploited triangles of trust and influence can transform a competent collaboration with adequate influence and resources into an outstanding one with strong influence and/or high quality resources.

Here are some examples of where taboo triangles have been successfully challenged:

The anti-apartheid movement gained significant ground when Nelson Mandela and PW Botha challenged the taboo triangle involving themselves and the South African Government. For a very long time Mandela's relationship with the Government of South Africa was faceless and impersonal: the state arrested him, passed judgement on him, imprisoned him and continuously endeavoured to control his life and that of his followers and supporters. As soon as another relationship was added, creating a triangle between Mandela, the State and a human representative of the State in the form of President Botha, trust was increased. Mandela and Botha were able to use these reinforced foundations of trust to influence the Government of South Africa towards majority rule.

Staying with South Africa, when President Mandela created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he challenged the taboo triangle formed by bringing together the State, the victims of apartheid and those who had committed crimes against these victims and violated their human rights. This state sanctioned, very open, emotional and difficult dialogue was crucial for building trust and cooperation between historically opposed communities and enabling the establishment of an effective democracy through which the benefits of economic and social development could be realised.

During the troubles in Northern Ireland, formal meetings between the UK Government and loyalist and republican prisoners had been avoided for fear of legitimising their actions; such meetings were, at least officially, strictly taboo. This lack of contact, however, had left the prisoners' power and influence unacknowledged and, paradoxically given the prisoners' incarceration, uncontrolled: free to cast an inhibiting shadow over the peace talks involving the UK Government and the loyalist and nationalist parties of Northern Ireland. The power and influence of the prisoners was a silent but ominous presence hovering above the negotiating table and preying upon the minds of the negotiators. Mo Mowlem, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, challenged the above taboo by meeting directly with loyalist and republican prisoners. By visiting the prisoners, Mo Mowlem acknowledged the power and influence of the prisoners and explicitly involved them in the peace process. The power and influence of the prisoners having been acknowledged and taken into account, a triangle of at least adequate trust and influence was gradually created between the UK Government, the prisoners and the Northern Irish political parties. The ominous silent presence above the negotiating table had been transformed into an active force that would help move the peace process towards a successful outcome.           

Sometimes taboo triangles can lie hidden within the complex cultures of and interactions between professions, only becoming apparent when someone tries to create one. For example, creating a triangle of influence between a doctor, patient and nursing staff should enhance the care given to the patient. However, traditional professional boundaries, assumptions about functions and leadership roles and perceptions of the appropriateness of professional interactions between medical and nursing staff can limit the formation and effectiveness of these triangles. Indeed, nursing staff who seek to create them could be labelled as counter-cultural trouble makers who do not know their place and are disrespectful of those perceived as higher-up the pecking order of professions. However, where these taboo triangles are successfully challenged they transform into triangles which create trust, increase the influence of key professionals and enhance the care given to patients.

Another example of a taboo triangle that was effectively challenged again comes from Africa, this time Ethiopia. A civil society support programme managed by the British Council sought to eliminate discrimination based upon social caste. It could not be truly effective in meeting its aims, however, until those it engaged with from within the discriminated against castes were willing to challenge and change their beliefs about and behaviours towards women and girls. These beliefs and behaviours caused additional discrimination within communities already discriminated against and made engaging with women and making them part of the initiative (and part of the discussion leading to solutions) effectively a taboo subject.

By reaching out to women and girls and providing them with safe access to education and other services, the project was gradually able to challenge the taboos surrounding the place and involvement of women and girls within their communities. This eventually created a powerful triangle of influence between the castes affected by discrimination, the British Council and its partners running the initiative, and potentially influential but previously disengaged segments of the disadvantaged castes.

A similar challenge to a taboo triangle took place in Columbia during a project seeking to enhance the economic opportunities, well-being and quality of life of coffee farmers. This time, the taboos and traditions surrounding the place and role of women within traditional farming communities was challenged through the style and approach of the training and education sessions farmers were required to attend in order to benefit from the initiative.

The training was informal and family orientated; women and children were encouraged to attend and play a full part. This gradually changed the nature of family dynamics and relationships, initially by giving women and children more recognition and influence within the family and then, developing on from this, within the family farming businesses. A new triangle of trust and influence had been created connecting the farmers, the project and the farmers wives and children.

This triangle of influence was important because it resulted in specific activities and outcomes that may not have happened without it. For example, the farming communities decided to invest some of the additional income generated as result of the project into building a nursery. This provided security and early education for children and also freed-up time for mothers and older children to help with the farming business and/or improve their educations. It is reasonable to assume that the enhanced influence of women and children within the family businesses was significant in the making of this decision.  

Very extreme Taboo triangles can sometimes be challenged and made acceptable and productive, especially where there is some pressing and mutually experienced need or problem.

For example, it is in the interest of almost every country to do all they can to safeguard their national economies through protecting the flow of international trade and commerce, especially given the instability of the world and the regular formation of conflict zones, e.g., within Eastern Europe, the Middle East and various parts of Africa

A powerful way of achieving this is to ensure that global Internet connections are made resilient and reliable by constructing alternative routes. One such route lands in Tel Aviv in Israel, travels across the West Bank (a zone of conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians), through Jordan and the Gulf of Aqaba and on to the Red Sea. This alternative route for Internet traffic helps assure connectivity with the whole of the Eastern Hemisphere, safeguards the economies and commerce of a large number of countries, and enables the uninterrupted progress of overall global trade.

Here, the urgent need to safeguard Internet connectivity and the economic activity it enables has overrode any taboos associated with cooperation between otherwise hostile countries (in this case the taboos associated with a triangular relationship involving Israel, Palestine and a private Internet company). If the levers of influence are strong and pressing enough, seemingly impossible triangles of cooperation (if not full trust and influence) can be created in the most unexpected of places. And once created, they stand as evidence that, given powerful enough incentives, such relationships are not only possible but also capable of producing significant and valuable results.

Key to challenging taboo triangles and making them acceptable is identifying and engaging with those who constitute them. In some cases, such as creating the above Internet route, this is relatively straightforward given the context and obvious necessity for cooperation. In other cases, such as the Northern Ireland example given earlier, it is not. Sometimes, some of those needing to occupy a corner of the triangle will not immediately take their place or be aware that they have a place to take. In these cases, potential participants in the triangle need to be educated, resourced and given the confidence to become involved (as with the coffee farmers example), or they need to be sent clear and unambiguous messages about the necessity and urgency of their involvement (as with the Northern Ireland example).      

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Create ever-increasing triangles of trust and influence

When interacting with the people, communities and others crucial to or affected by a partnership's work seek to create ever-increasing triangles of trust and influence.

When speaking with fellow collaborators make sure you ask them to name one person or organisation they feel would be interested in the collaboration's work and, if needed, be able to make a valuable contribution. Then, if this person or organisation is introduced to the collaboration, or even just made aware of and updated about the collaboration's work, an additional acquaintance will be created which can be developed into an advantageous relationship as and when required. 

Building these ever increasing triangles of trust and influence will help embed the collaboration's work within its environment and increase its influence and ability to get things done. It will also, very importantly, gradually increase the diversity of the people and organisations working with the collaboration. This will significantly increase the perspectives, ideas and resources which can influence the collaboration's direction and approach and enhance the effectiveness of its activities.

Here are some examples of organisations and institutions that build ever-increasing triangles of trust and influence:

Japanese companies create triangular relationships of trust and influence by partnering with not only a main senior supplier for a product or service but also a junior one. This enables  them to enrich, grow and add resilience to their networks and ensure they are able to meet not only current challenges but also future and as yet unknown ones.

The British Council consistently employs a strategy of creating ever-increasing triangles of trust and influence. Whatever the focus of their work, and whatever the country, they work hard at creating new relationship triangles between themselves, their original national and regional partners and those their network of partners introduce or suggest to them. A particularly noteworthy example is a 'Justice for All' programme in Uganda, where the British Council's initial national and regional authority partners introduced the British Council to the large number of influential traditional tribal rulers. This created triangles of influence and trust between the Council, the Nigerian authorities and traditional tribes. It was these traditional tribal leaders that most probably played a lead role in introducing the British Council to the semi-formal voluntary police forces and vigilante groups operating at local levels. This created yet another triangle of influence and trust between the British Council, the tribal leaders and the self-appointed semi-formal police and vigilante groups. For a project focused upon creating an environment where 'justice for all' can be a reality, this type of triangular relationship is of immense value.

Health and social service initiatives are increasingly seeking to create triangular relationships between health services, social services and, crucially, the people and communities using the services.

The emerging multi-regional GP super practices, such as the Modality Partnership in Birmingham, are able to make connections across boundaries and introduce people and organisations with mutual and complementary health and social interests and needs. This creates new and valuable triangles of trust and influence between those who might otherwise have been unaware of each other and the potential help and support so near at hand.

Local authorities build triangular relationships by not only creating lists of potential partners and collaborators but also asking those on the lists for additional people and organisations which could be included.

Some collaborative initiatives use their evaluation methods to create triangular relationships of trust and influence. They create insider/outsider evaluation teams which pair an existing 'inside' partner with a new external 'outside' person or organisation dealing with similar issues and involved in similar activities. This not only brings new perspectives and fresh insights to the evaluation of the collaborative initiative's work but also adds a new relationship to the collaborative network: it creates a new triangle of trust and influence between a key partner, a new and potentially useful contact and the collaborative initiative itself.

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Identify 'Keep within Reach Groups' during the early stages of your collaborative work

Most people and communities, as long as they are correctly identified and engaged with, need not be perceived as 'Hard to Reach'. There are, however, some people and communities which will prove hard to 'Keep within Reach'.

As a collaborative initiative progresses, some people and communities will become increasingly engaged not only with the collaboration's work but also with each other, forming a rich hub or club within the boundaries of the wider collaboration. They will do this fairly quickly, within the first few months of the collaboration's life. The members of this rich club will probably share similar outlooks and have access to similar or complementary expertise and resources.

On the other hand, and virtually inevitably (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), as the rich club develops so too will a corresponding poor club.

This poor club may or may not be poor in terms of resources and expertise, but it will probably be perceived by the rich club as having little of value to offer. It will likely be inexperienced in collaborative working and maintaining and developing relationships across organisational and sector boundaries. It will very likely contain less formal and less easily labelled organisations or communities, represent minority interests and be positioned (or have positioned itself) away from the mainstream of society or even the sectors from which its members originated. Also, its members may fail to gain entry into a collaboration's rich club because they cannot pay the price in terms of investing their time and attention.  

The creation of this poor club is the precursor to its members disengaging from the collaboration's activities and eventually absenting themselves entirely (or alternatively agitating and rebelling against the collaboration's activities), having been starved of attention, access to support, resources and expertise in favour of the continued replenishment of the rich club and its interests and contributions.       

Preventing the development of the poor club needs to be a priority during a collaboration's engagement with those it needs to involve in its work. It can be tempting to rely solely upon the influence and resources of the ever more powerful rich club but doing so will eventually and inevitably lead to the fragmentation of the collaboration and the steady and perhaps rapid decline of its effectiveness.

This is because the unique insights, passion, vitality and energetic creativity needed to sustain collaborative working and produce innovative approaches and solutions (which is what most collaborations are formed to achieve) tend to emerge from the unusual rather than usual suspects who become involved in a collaboration's work, or through the synergy created when unusual suspects collaborate with those who have access to the resources and complementary expertise which can transform intriguing ideas into usefully innovative ones.

Preventing the poor club from forming and its members disappearing into collaborative obscurity and eventual invisibility (or rebelling) can be achieved by doing the following:
  • Demonstrating that KwR groups' skills, qualities, knowledge and experience are of significant value.
  • Building the capability of KwR groups in the areas of managing relationships, networking and using social media, giving presentations and participating in meetings.
  • Focusing upon encouraging and supporting KwR groups early on during the first few months of a collaboration's work.
  • Giving KwR groups significant roles within the collaboration and helping them develop expertise that is recognised as valuable by other partners and stakeholders.   

For some, rich club/poor club formation is happening within the Collective Impact approach to collaborative working. In Washington State and some other USA cities communities of colour are becoming increasingly alarmed about the growing power and influence of Collaborative Impact initiatives and the 'rich club' mainstream organisations and businesses which form their backbones. As these rich club backbone organisations gain power and influence and attract resources, those not in the club, those not reserved a place at the table where decisions are made and resources are shared, are reduced to waiting for an invitation to stand before those at the table and make their case (a case which will most likely be listened to and perhaps accepted if it complements the menu expected by those seated at the table). It is only a matter of time before those standing before the table realise they have been segregated into a poor club reliant upon handouts from those seated at the table. Those left standing and waiting will then be sorely tempted to turn on their heels, turn their backs upon the unpleasant sight of those feasting before them, and walk away to struggle on as best they can using whatever resources they can skilfully scavenge from elsewhere.

In Australia, the community engagement approach of the Victoria State Government battles against the formation of rich clubs and the resentful disengagement of poor clubs. A key part of the State's strategy is to identify under-represented groups, involve them early on and work at maintaining contact with them. This keeps them within reach and helps ensure they are not corralled into poor clubs that gradually become isolated, disengaged and resentful. The State's initiatives also seek to not only use the unique insights, knowledge, skills and experiences of their KwR groups but also add to them in areas helpful to both the KwR groups and the initiatives of which they are part. This not only enhances the value of KwR groups but also adds to their perceived credibility with more mainstream and/or potentially rich club partners.               
Another example of rich club/poor club formation is currently happening in Calgary, Canada. For some in Calgary, community engagement has become more like community confrontation (which illustrates that poor clubs do not always disappear but sometimes agitate and rebel). Part of the problem is that a 'rich club' of organisations has formed very quickly which is well endowed with the time to get involved and holds common interests and ideals. This means that those with little time to get involved and who have different interests and ideals have quickly gained membership of a poor club, becoming detached from (and feeling resentful about) the process of community engagement.

Resolving the above situation is not simply about creating more consultation. It is about identifying and acknowledging the emerging poor club and appreciating why it is poor (here a key aspect is having the time to get involved) and creating strategies to engage with its members early on and keep them within reach and involved. This will mean moving beyond traditional meetings and making involvement and contribution (however small) welcome and easy. This will, in no small part, be achieved by expanding the role of social media and incorporating it within required community engagement processes.