Thursday, 25 January 2018

Focus on the problem; don't just throw trendy words around

'Co-design, the Victorian secretary ventured, should mean trying to reach agreement on the nature of a problem to be solved, and opening up to a broader range of ideas and possible solutions.'
Gill Callister: Victorian Department of Education and Training Secretary (The quotation is from Co-Design, Collaboration, Engagement: Don't Just Throw Trendy Words Around an article from
Yes, engagement that is about collaboration to co-design must focus on the nature of the problem!
However, traditional thinking about engagement and collaboration has often blinkered perceptions.
Arguably, it has encouraged us to focus upon 'the best way to engage with stakeholders' rather than 'the best way to engage with stakeholders to solve the problem'
I am glad to see such a simple but frequently overlooked point being emphasised by someone to whom people might listen. This is, it has to be said, all too rare.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Evidence that women enhance collective intelligence

Here is a short post from the Gender Action Portal of HARVARD Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Forum that shares findings clearly supporting the existence of collective intelligence and strongly indicating that collective intelligence is determined by group composition and dynamics.

More specifically, the post identifies that the presence and influence of women enhances a group's collective intelligence. This is because a major determiner of the level of collective intelligence within a group is the group's level of social sensitivity. Basically, social sensitivity is the ability to empathise; this is something women (on average) do better than men.

These findings emphasise the importance of ensuring women are encouraged to contribute fully to collaborative initiatives. This is something I have written about when exploring the conductor Paul MacAlindin's work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq:

This is how a collaborative person works: encourage, involve, appreciate and develop women

This is how a collaborative person works: form the habit of empowering the disempowered

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Use 'Flock Thinking' to help you deal with 'Stretch Collaboration'.

In his latest book Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don't Agree with or Like or Trust Adam Kahane explores what he calls 'Stretch Collaboration'. 

According to Adam, Stretch Collaboration occurs when 'we need to work with these people and we really do not see how we are going to be able to'. He also identifies two reasons for this perception: 1. we cannot control the situation (and trying to control it will have very negative consequences, as this example shows); 2. we cannot agree about the problem and how to solve it.

In a recent video about his book, Adam says that key to working effectively within these extremely difficult collaborations is developing the ability to suspend your opinions and beliefs: to continue holding them but lightly, as if by a string held in front of you and others.

In the past, and in my book Sleeping with the Enemy - Achieving Collaborative Success: Fifth Edition, I have described a technique that can help you develop this ability. I call it Flock Thinking and you can read about it, and watch a short video of me explaining it, here

If you scroll down to the end of the post about Flock Thinking, you will find a link to another post offering a couple of tools that will help you apply the technique to discussions with collaborators and partners.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Make yourself relevant

Here is a post, written by Dr María D. López Rodríguez for the Integration and Implementation Insights blog, that explores the concept of boundary objects: objects that can be used to help people from different backgrounds and disciplines share and integrate their knowledge, experiences and other information whilst exploring and seeking to solve complex issues and problems.

Boundary objects can take many forms (Dr Rodríguez's, as you will see from her post, consist of a simple diagram).

The key dimension explored by Dr Rodriguez's boundary object tool is relevance: relevance to the problem that needs to be solved. Specifically, three areas of relevance are explored: 1. the relevance of scientific knowledge to solving the problem, 2. the relevance of current legislative frameworks (laws) to solving the problem, 3. the relevance of the problem to society and the public. Each dimension of relevance is discussed and given a rating. These ratings are then combined in a triangular diagram. (See Dr Rodriguez's post for a detailed description of how this is done.)    

Dr Rodriguez's boundary object was designed for a specific reason and context, as part of a process to help scientists and non-scientist decision-makers enhance their collaboration in the area of environmental protection, and the bespoke nature of the tool is emphasised by her as crucial. Her post suggests that all partners in a collaboration need to co-create boundary objects tailored to their unique requirements and contexts.

Having said this, however, perhaps a first step towards creating unique boundary objects is to become familiar with them by adopting and adapting those that have been used elsewhere.

For example, if Dr Rodriguez's boundary object is simplified it can be used within an increased number of contexts and gradually adapted to the specific needs of each one.

A simplified version of the model would be based upon the following three questions:
  1. Are our collective experiences, types of knowledge and skills relevant to solving the problem?
  2. How relevant are current rules, regulations and procedures to the problem and our options for solving it?
  3. How relevant is the problem to the people with whom we are seeking to engage?       
Collaborators would be asked to discuss each question and then provide a rating for each one. The ratings can be from 0 to 3 or 0 to 5, with 0 signifying no relevance to the problem and 3 or 5 signifying maximum relevance to the problem. These rating would then be transferred to a triangular diagram looking something like this:

This boundary object can then be used to encourage further discussion about what the ratings imply and what might need to be done in response to them. The above triangle suggests the following: solving the problem is very relevant to people; current rules, etc., are fairly relevant to solving the problem; and the collaborative initiative's shared experiences, etc., are not as relevant as they should be to solving the problem. (These ratings strongly indicate that to solve the problem effectively it is a priority to gain additional relevant experiences and develop and/or obtain additional relevant knowledge, etc. They also clearly suggest that significant attention needs to be given to working with and exploiting current rules, etc.)         

The following questions could be used to start the discussion about a boundary object's ratings and the shape they create: 
  • Which of our collective experiences, types of knowledge and skills seem most relevant to the problems we are seeking to solve? Why do we think this? What evidence do we have? How can we make them even more relevant?
  • Which of our experiences, types of knowledge and skills seem least relevant to the problems we are seeking to solve? Why do we think this? What evidence do we have? How could they be made more relevant?
  • Which experiences, types of knowledge and skills (which we consider essential to solving the problem) do we not possess collectively? How can we gain them? How can we develop them? From where can we get them?
  • Which current rules, regulations and procedures will or could help us solve the problem? How could we enhance their ability to help us?
  • Which current rules, regulations and procedures will or could hinder or stop our progress towards solving the problem? How could we reduce or remove their ability to hinder or stop us solving the problem? Is there any way we can turn them to our advantage so that they help us solve the problem?
  • Why is the problem relevant to people? Why do we think this? What evidence do we have that the problem is relevant to people? Do people know that the problem is relevant to them? How can we make it clear that the problem is relevant to people?
  • Why do people think the problem is not relevant to them? Why do they think this? What evidence do they have that the problem is not relevant to them? How does the evidence that the problem is not relevant to people compare with the evidence that the problem is relevant to people? Do we have to rethink or reframe the problem to make it relevant to people? Do we have to identify different and perhaps underlying problems that are relevant to people?

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Community engagement: explore and agree why you are doing it

Community engagement is a crucial activity for many collaborative initiatives. Most people realise this and will willingly contribute the time, effort and resources to ensure it is done 'properly'. 

However, this is where the misunderstandings and problems can begin. What does 'doing community engagement properly' mean?

There is no one agreed definition of community engagement and there can be different reasons for doing it. Also, people who join a collaborative initiative will hold their own beliefs about community engagement and what it is for based upon their backgrounds and experiences and the previous contexts within which they have done it.

So, when a collaboration forms and begins thinking about community engagement, it makes sense to make time to discuss and explore each partner's experiences of community engagement and the assumptions and beliefs they hold about it: essentially why and how they expect it to be done.

However, as stated in a recent paper from BMC Public Health, this is not done often enough. The reasons for this are not clear. Perhaps they are connected with time pressures and/or the assumption that everyone sees community engagement in the same way.

But it is clear there are consequences. Misunderstandings and conflicts will soon manifest between partners who hold different beliefs about community engagement and what it should be expected to achieve. These difficulties usually arise, as the above paper also makes clear, from the unacknowledged and therefore unmanaged collision of the two most widely used approaches to community engagement: the pragmatic and the idealistic (what the BMC Public Health paper more accurately and specifically labels as the utilitarian approach and the social justice approach).

Those who perceive community engagement as a pragmatic utilitarian tool will use it purely and simply to achieve a collaborative initiative's objectives (e.g., improvements in a community's standard of education and training, its overall standard of health, its overall quality of life, etc.) Those who perceive community engagement as an ideological vehicle for social justice will offer it as a transformative experience that will empower a community and encourage its people to co-create or, in some cases, take control of a collaborative initiative and its priorities and approaches (e.g., they will help shape or even set the priorities for education and training, heavily influence or even identify the areas of community health that need to be improved, or do same re. the quality of life experienced by a community, etc.).    

Obviously, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive and they need not collide through misunderstandings and conflict. If they are discussed and explored and people's assumptions and preferences for one or the other are surfaced they can, through patient discussion and agreement, become opposite ends of a managed continuum of community engagement: one that offers an effective mix of pragmatic 'utilitarian' engagement to achieve objectives and 'socially just' engagement to encourage empowerment which can be gradated according to need and context.

This careful managing of the pragmatic and the ideological enables a collaborative initiative to respond quickly and effectively to changing circumstances and the challenges and opportunities that arise as its relationship with its communities waxes and wanes but, hopefully, ultimately evolves.

It will also help the initiative respond quickly to 'tipping points': those points during the development of a collaborative initiative's relationship with its communities when a small amount of additional engagement, acknowledgement or resource (or a small adjustment of approach) can realise disproportionately large rewards.

For example, a favourable tipping point will occur when a long sought key influencer from within a community decides to join an initiative or show significant public support for it. At this time, it will be possible for the initiative to make significant progress if it can slightly adapt its style of engagement, becoming a little more overtly 'utilitarian' if a quick leap towards achieving objectives is needed or a little more 'socially just' if the key influencer can become an instant role-model for community empowerment. Obviously, the initiative might gain maximum advantage (dependent upon need, appropriateness and context) if it can cleverly combine both things! 

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

How to start collaborating strongly and effectively

Here is a very useful article written by Paul Born of the Tamarack Institute. It provides clear advice about how to create a common agenda for collaborative work that creates Collective Impact.

Paul clearly states that creating a common agenda for collaborative work must focus upon dialogue, engagement, involvement, exploration and creativity; it must be about not only constructing an efficient plan but also encouraging an effective creative process that helps 'everyone get on the same page' about what they are going to do together. 

A tool I have created, which I call Doughnut Thinking, can help us do this. I describe it in detail here.

Paul's article also emphasises how crucial it is to effectively manage the first 12 months of a collaborative initiative. It is during this time that partners who are new to not only each other but also perhaps collaborative work in general can easily lose their way, their discussions nose-diving into ineffective inward looking talking-shops. 

Sometime during this first 12 months (often about two or three months in) a collaborative initiative will enter a particularly sensitive and important phase. If the initiative is to achieve its potential and effectively achieve its goals, this phase needs to be carefully managed. 

I call this the Latency Phase, and I describe the aspects crucial to managing it effectively here.

Additional to the aspects I mention above, Paul's article emphasises one more: the need to quickly develop the habit of looking outwards from the collaborative initiative towards the situations and contexts within which it is working and the people and communities whose lives it is seeking to enhance.

Paul emphasises the need for early and high-profile engagement with a broad range of people affected by a collaborative initiative's work, and he provides some ideas about how this may be done effectively.

Engaging with a broad range of people affected by a collaborative initiative's work (perhaps by arranging Unusual Suspects Festivals, etc.) helps avoid what I call the Carousel Syndrome.   

For me, Paul's recommendation of Listening Teams (teams tasked with listening to and recording the stories, opinions and ideas of the people and communities surrounding a collaborative initiative) is especially important. This is because it achieves at least two crucial and closely connected things: 1. it sends a strong and consistent message to people that their stories and opinions (and involvement) are valued by the collaborative initiative and will be used to inform its work; 2. it forces a collaborative initiative to look outwards at the people and communities affected by its work, so minimising the chance of the initiative becoming an ineffective, inward looking talking shop.

Lastly, Paul mentions in passing that he is aware of the irony of writing a seemingly prescriptive 'How To' guide for developing a common agenda whilst arguing against the use of an overly prescriptive planning process. This comment is very significant, as it points to one of the paradoxes that lie at the heart of collaborative working: the need to be both predictable (which being prescriptive helps to achieve) and unpredictable (which being non-prescriptive helps to achieve). 

One of the challenges of collaborative working is to be predictable enough to reassure key stakeholders and obtain funds, etc., but at the same time unpredictable enough to discover new and challenging solutions and innovations.

I give an example of how this paradox has been successfully managed here

(There are 5 additional paradoxes that lie at the heart of collaborative working. These are described in my book Sleeping with the Enemy - Achieving Collaborative Success, where you will also find an explanation of the Doughnut Principle and guidance about how to manage the Latency Phase.)                            

How an American doughnut can help your partnership achieve its full potential

‘This partnership could have achieved so much more.’ 

‘We did what we set out to do, but with hindsight it was never really going to be enough.’ 

‘I just feel that somehow we have missed an opportunity to make a real, positive   difference’

I frequently hear the above comments and ones like them when listening to those who have had (or are having) very frustrating experiences of working in partnership.
Why are these comments so common? Why, when large amounts of time and effort, not to mention money, are put into encouraging, forming and running partnerships, are they so often perceived as falling short of their initial promise and potential?

This post will explore why many people involved in partnership working find the experience frustrating and consider it an opportunity missed. It will show how Charles Handy’s Doughnut Principle can be used to help partnerships focus not just on those things basic to its existence, but also on those things that will help it achieve its full potential and so make the maximum positive difference within its field of endeavour.   

Why do partnerships frequently fall short of their potential?  

As anyone who has worked in partnerships will know, there can be many reasons why partnerships fall short of their full potential (which of course makes it all the more likely that it will happen). Some of these are: 

·      The urgent demands for quick wins, which force partnerships to take short cuts and go for the obvious but not always the best payoffs.

·      The legal and budgetary conditions and constraints that accompany many partnership projects, which can force them to go down the expected, orthodox routes on the way to achieving the expected, pre – ordained goals. In essence doing what has always been done – creating re – inventions of past solutions that perhaps did not work then and certainly will not work now. 

·      The conflicting goals and agendas of the partners, which can give rise to political manoeuvrings and the associated wasted time and effort.

·      The perception of partnership working as not being core to the partner organisations’ activities, which leads to it being given less attention and a lower priority.

The above are not inconsiderable barriers to successful partnership working, but on top of all this is one other key issue. People working in partnerships (especially for the first time, or as is often the case on an occasional basis only) can frequently feel very uncertain, even intimidated, when faced with the unfamiliar climate, settings and ways of working associated with them. This usually leads to a lack of confidence, which in turn leads to a tendency to play far too safe, to look at what must be done and no further. When this happens, new and innovative ideas and insights are ignored or simply pass by unseen and the opportunity to make real, positive improvements lost.

Charles Handy’s Doughnut Principle

How can the above lack of confidence and accompanying tendency to play safe be effectively addressed? One way is to encourage partnerships to widen their focus to include not only what is purely core and mandatory, but also what is discretionary. To help them search out, identify and evaluate the usefulness and practicality of those things lying in their area of choice, those things which they can but do not have to do. Charles Handy’s Doughnut Principle can help.

In his book ‘The Empty Rain Coat’ Charles Handy explains his Doughnut principle:

‘The doughnut in question is an American doughnut, the kind with a whole in the middle, rather than the British version, which has jam instead of a hole. The doughnut principle, however, requires an inside out doughnut, one with the hole on the outside and the dough in the middle. It can only, therefore, be an imaginary doughnut, a conceptual doughnut, one for thinking with not eating.’ 
When applied to partnerships, the middle of the doughnut represents their core activities – those things that are not negotiable and must be done. It is these things that partnerships, when intimidated by the tasks in front of them, can easily assume to be the beginning and end of everything, so making their first and perhaps most significant errors. These are lack of ambition and avoidance of risk, which all too often stop partnerships from ever achieving anything like their true potential.

The space around the outside of the core comprises those activities that are discretionary, that partnerships could do if they so choose, but do not have to do. It is through doing some of these activities that partnerships can add greatly to their effectiveness. This is because something that is discretionary is not automatically insignificant or unimportant. Indeed, and especially in the case of partnership working, discretionary activities can turn out to be very significant and very important. 

Why the use of choice and discretion is so important for effective partnership working

To understand why the area of discretion is so important for partnership working we need to ask the fundamental question “Why do partnerships form?” Two of the most important reasons are to do something new and to do something that each organisation could not do by itself. In order to do this, partners need to think and act in new, co-operative and creative ways.

To find these creative, new approaches partnerships need to explore previously undiscovered pathways and ideas and find new ways to use and combine their resources. These are most likely to lie hidden somewhere within the discretionary area of Charles Handy’s doughnut. 

To illustrate, think about climbing a mountain. The physical starting point of any such expedition is the base camp. This is a safe, secure place, stocked with everything that, from experience, it is known a climbing expedition will need. The expedition will also have a plan, outlining roles and responsibilities and what the expedition needs to achieve at specific stages of the ascent in order to reach the summit. As with the base camp stocks, this plan will be based on experience of what has been effective for previous climbing expeditions.

In a similar way, those setting up a partnership will consider what their experiences tell them about the likely challenges it will face. They will then put together a plan designed to meet these challenges, and provide the resources they think most likely to be needed.  In doing this they hope the partnership will be able to climb to the top of its own particular mountain – achieve its goals to the best of its ability and potential.

Thinking further about goals, the initial ones set for the partnership will also be based on experiences and other previous information about what it is worthwhile to achieve, for which summit it is best to aim. These goals may or may not prove to be the most appropriate, depending on the actual experiences of the new partnership and the consequences of the unique situations it is likely to confront.

The above process is a good, professional starting point that will very likely get the partnership climbing (perhaps even in the right direction if the correct summit has been chosen; the right set of goals). However, any exploration of new terrain will, sooner or later, present unexpected circumstances and problems. It is during these times that the partnership will need to tap into its area of discretion, to think and act for its self. It will need to explore its new terrain both more widely and more closely, and with fresh eyes. It will need to re – examine its resources and the uses to which they are put. It will need to discover new pathways towards its goals and use and combine its resources in innovative ways in order to reach them.

Finding these new pathways and innovative approaches will make the ultimate difference between success and failure. Will the partnership struggle halfway to the summit of its true potential with the traditional maps and techniques that it began with? Or will it make it all the way to the top armed and fortified with new maps of the terrain and novel ways to combine and use its tools and resources? Will it struggle onwards to achieve the goals originally set for it, even if they prove to be the wrong ones? Or will it redefine its purpose and the goals that fall out of it, so that what it finally achieves makes a real, positive difference to those affected by its efforts?    

The true situation for partnerships is, of course, even more difficult and complex, because the mountains they have to climb are not physical but conceptual and therefore invisible. Partnerships may in fact have no idea as to whether they have reached the summit of their potential, got halfway up, managed to climb only the equivalent of a few hundred metres from their perceptual base camp, or not actually moved on at all due to unseen obstacles. This makes it very important that partnerships immediately form the habit of exploring and utilising their areas of discretion, so they can overcome the unexpected, invisible crevices and sheer cliff walls they will respectively and inevitably fall into or collide with during their climb.       

So essentially, helping partnerships explore their areas of discretion makes what was previously unknowable knowable. It helps partnerships reach new, previously unknown, out of reach destinations by encouraging them to think for themselves, map out their own best routes and identify how best to combine and use their available resources in order to get where they need to go. These new destinations are where originality is most likely to reside, and therefore where partnerships are most likely to find the genuinely new solutions to the problems they have been created and tasked to find.   

How to use the doughnut principle with your partners

To get maximum benefit from the doughnut principle use it early, at the beginning of the life of the partnership when all the partners first get together.  There is usually a lot of optimism and energy around at the very beginning of a partnership project (or at the very least a willingness to give things a chance). Make use of this window of opportunity. Get people to acknowledge and value what is core, but also explicitly focus on the space around the core, the discretionary area, those things that, now that the partnership has come together and exists, it is obvious the partnership could and perhaps should address.

But also notice there is an outer boundary around the discretionary area, which suggests there must be a realistic and acceptable limit to what the partnership can and should do.

Using the doughnut principle in this way immediately widens the partnership’s perception of what can be achieved, rather than immediately limiting and diminishing it into the mandatory core of activities. It also balances the partnership’s perceptions by reminding it of the limits to its activities and the fact that core activities must be done. 

During this initial phase it is useful to use the doughnut principle in a clearly defined and structured way. Try the following: 

1. Present the above diagram to the partners and allow them to board storm all the things they can think of that the partnership could do under each of the headings. Start with what is core (non-negotiable criteria, outputs, deadlines etc.) and then move into the discretionary area and work around the rest of the doughnut. 

Consider each segment in turn: 

·        What is clearly possible within the partnership’s area of discretion (perhaps searching out and setting up meetings with possible future stakeholders and partners)?

·        What is just possible (perhaps making the case and lobbying for more funds and resources)?

·        What is barely possible (perhaps questioning, challenging and changing the assumptions underpinning some of the sacred cows of the project – those ideas and views that have until now seemed sacrosanct)?

·        What seems way out or not possible (perhaps wiping the slate clean and rebuilding the rationale for the partnership’s existence from its core outwards)?

Remember that the usual rules of board storming apply and that the only goal at this stage is to generate a large quantity of ideas.

2. Once there are a decent number of items in each discretionary segment of the doughnut move onto the next phase of the process. Look at each item and decide: 

·        Whether it can stay within the area of discretion. (Is it in fact something the partnership can and should do?)

·        Whether with hindsight it needs to become part of the core. (Is it something that the partnership must, rather than just should or could, do?)

·        Whether it needs to be moved outside of the doughnut altogether (because it is something the partnership cannot or should not do). 

The danger at this stage is that all those items in the ‘Way Out’ segment will be immediately moved to the outside of the doughnut. Resist this temptation. Ensure that each item within this segment is given due consideration. 

If any item from any discretionary segment looks like it is going to be moved outside of the doughnut be sure to challenge each other’s thinking constructively. Ask the following types of questions: 

·        What assumptions or fears is its removal based on? Are they valid?

·        If the item or idea cannot be utilised what can we do that is similar to it but more possible or acceptable?

·        What are the perceived risks and consequences and what are the actual risks and consequences?

·        If we broke the item or idea down into chunks are there any chunks we could keep within the doughnut?

·        If the partnership itself cannot do any of the items are there any stakeholders or other interested parties that could? What can the partnership do to get them on board? Could they become partners?

·        If the item was kept within the area of discretion what would the positives be? Are they really outweighed by the negatives? 

3. Once the partners have completed the above process to their satisfaction, agree specific action points to ensure those discretionary activities identified as important to the effectiveness of the partnership are implemented. 

Given that core tasks will inevitably demand the partnership’s attention, agree one or two action points for implementing discretionary activities immediately. 

Remember that the purpose of this process is to widen and balance the partnership’s perception of what it must do and what it could do if it so wished. Core activities must be addressed, but any action planning associated with them needs to be done separately. This is in order to avoid the perceived importance of the core growing to such an extent that it fills the partnership’s entire view of the doughnut, so smothering the opportunities for creativity and innovation associated with the area of discretion. 


Many people have had frustrating experiences when working in partnership with other organisations. 

This is because many partnership projects fall short of achieving their potential and are therefore less effective than they should be. 

There are many reasons why partnerships fall short of their potential. Key are the feelings of uncertainty, even intimidation, some people feel when faced with the unfamiliar climate, settings and ways of working associated with partnership projects. This can lead to an overall lack of confidence. 

This lack of confidence leads to partnerships playing safe, concentrating purely on what is core and mandatory and ignoring what lies in their areas of discretion – the activities that are not required but that could be undertaken if partnerships so wished. 

Playing safe and concentrating purely on core activities leads to new ideas, insights and opportunities being ignored or passed by. This is because new ideas and insights usually emerge from within the area of discretion, not from within the pre – set core activities. 

One way of encouraging partnerships to widen their focus to include their areas of discretion is to use Charles Handy’s Doughnut Principle in the systematic way described above. 

This principle and the accompanying process encourages partnerships to both widen and balance their perceptions of what is core and discretionary. It draws attention to the area of discretion and encourages its careful analysis. It also reminds partnerships that there are limits to their areas of discretion and that decisions need to be made about what stays within them and what is put outside. These decisions need to be made carefully so as to avoid unnecessarily losing opportunities to maximise potential and increase effectiveness.
Specific action points need to be agreed at the end of the process described above. This is to ensure that partnerships undertake the discretionary activities identified as important to their effectiveness.