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Collaboration standards

I just can’t ignore the synchronicity when the same topic pops up in different settings, all around the same time.  We met with an organization recently about supporting them in developing a planning retreat, and our wide-ranging discussion touched on standards of excellence.  Not too long after that, I was talking with a local leader that works with nonprofit organizations and small businesses, and he also mentioned the subject.  And it turns out there are some great resources out there for evaluating how we as organizations or individuals are doing, and aiming high in our performance and service (see Independent Sector’s list of standards for a great start).

But around the same time I also re-acquainted myself with another resource that’s particularly relevant to standards of excellence and our work building collaborations.  The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation has an inventory, available free on-line, that uses published research to identify twenty key factors for successful collaboration.  Their list of factors is particularly geared towards community-oriented collaborations, but I believe it could easily be adapted for business projects or teams operating in just about any setting.  You can check out the full list of factors on their website, but today I particularly wanted to highlight three of their factors for successful collaboration:

DSCF1661abc1) Concrete and attainable goals and objectives – Identifying why we collaborate and what we hope will be achieved through that collaboration sounds obvious, but can we get very specific and very realistic about how we will know if our vision and purpose have been successfully carried out?  Especially when funding is tight (and when is it not?) and there are such frequent calls for evaluation and research-driven solutions, we need to be able to clearly state what makes our work together so important, and how we’ll know that it’s leading to the results we seek.  Can you plot an achievable path between where you are now and your measure of success, so that tomorrow and next week and next month you know where you need to be, and so that when you do evaluate you’ll be able to clearly demonstrate concrete steps that taken together meet your goals?  Collaboration is about results, not just how many meetings or how frequent the communication or how many stakeholders you bring together – it’s a waste of everyone’s precious time and efforts to not develop a clear sense of where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

dreamstimefree_2477992) Collaboration perceived as being in each participant’s self-interest – Perhaps that sounds like it’s feeding into an overly individualistic and self-centered approach, but I am convinced from the work I’ve done developing collaborations that without participants’ commitment and genuine belief that participating in the collaboration makes each member better off than they would be by themselves, the collaboration will be lackluster at best.  Just thinking that collaboration is generally a good idea, or that we “ought to” participate in a collaborative group (for status, because our bosses say we have to, or because other good people are doing it) isn’t enough to inspire us to really take action, or to get over the resistance to adding one more meeting or “to-do” item to our busy schedules.  We have to care to collaborate, and care not just about the outcome, but also the process and the other people involved (more of the Wilder factors) … and that caring has to come at least partly from having our own needs met through the collaboration.

dreamstimefree_54273) Multiple layers of participation – “Everyone” in your office, organization or community is affected by this collaboration, broad participation by a cross-section of stakeholders is important, and direct democracy is good … so let’s just open this collaboration up to anyone who want to come to our meetings, hmm? Well, maybe, but then again, often maybe not.  Very large group meetings can be difficult to facilitate, and challenging for participants as well, particularly if there isn’t a shared vision for the project.  Adults often work better in small groups, where there’s space to hear of the unique knowledge and experiences that each person brings to the table (and time for introverts like me to think through what I want to contribute before I start speaking).  And while the initial enthusiasm for a particular project may be high, a successful collaboration requires that over the longer term the individuals involved develop relationships and trust with each other … another thing that’s tough to do in a very large group setting.

But this factor isn’t in conflict with the desire to have all key stakeholders involved … it just speaks to how we do that.  Maybe the primary vehicle for your collaboration is a monthly meeting with empowered representatives from key groups to disseminate information, gather feedback for the collaborative to consider, and make decisions that move you towards your collaborative goals.  But your group may also conduct an online survey to gather all stakeholders’ input once a year, hold a couple community events during the year, check in periodically with key leaders who don’t have time to participate in regular meetings or events, and work intensely with certain community partners on one aspect of the collaboration.  By creating multiple layers and means for collaboration, we honor what each contributor has to offer and still keep our collaborations focused and streamlined enough to function effectively.

So how excellent is your collaboration, and how have you worked with these or other factors? And what experiences have you had with using standards of excellence?  Would love to hear from you …

PS – One quick note here.  It’s that time of year when resolutions, perfectionism and dashed expectations, and all-or-nothing improvement campaigns can appear at your collaboration party. Another of the Wilder collaborative factors is about working at the appropriate pace for your group … as you work with these or other standards of excellence, celebrate the excellence you’ve achieved, pick one or two places you’d like to seriously (but playfully) work on over the next six months, and be kind to yourselves along the way. Cheers!

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Filed under General collaboration, Working with Groups

Collaboration: knowledge sharing

So there you are, five hours into work on that new project, only to find out that your colleague already did that same work or had information you spent a lot of time trying to collect.  Or maybe you were talking with someone about your organization’s or business’ less than satisfactory outcome to a tough problem, only to find out that this person had another piece of the picture or a different approach to the question that you’d never considered … and this person was none to pleased that you never asked them for their input in the first place!

Sound familiar?  It’s pretty common in our individualistic, competitive, put-out-the-most-recent-fire world that information critical to achieving our collective objectives isn’t shared … despite lengthy and unproductive meetings, or talk of more and better communication.  It’s ironic that as individuals we’re so thirsty to be heard, to have someone value the information or contribution we have to make.  And yet, in our organizations we seem to expect that individuals should already know what’s needed, and, if they have to ask (god forbid), they should ask targeted questions of the “expert” to get at the minimum they think they need to respond to the problem of the moment.  (And don’t you dare suggest another meeting!)

Call me an idealist, but imagine for a moment that the people you worked with recognized that you and they all had an important piece of a dynamic puzzle, and that continuous sharing of useful information with each other was fundamental to achieving your group’s objectives, improving products or services, and increasing employees’ or members’ sense of buy-in and empowerment.  Mmm …

Curiosity & play

So, what would it take?  I’m not an expert on action research, knowledge management or collaborative learning, but I think we have a lot to learn from all these fields to improve the knowledge sharing in our organizations.  And, just to get you started, here are a few of the ideas I’ve successfully worked with:

1) Bring in more voices – For example, at your next meeting include a supportive (open, not dismissive or “going through the motions”) go-round with input from every single person in the room about a challenging question.  Or ask stakeholders who haven’t previously been involved to come up with three criteria for what would successfully address the question, or at least ten possible (even if crazy) brainstorm ideas related to the issue.  Or try a mind map to identify related approaches or concepts that might inform the discussion.

2) Recognize and appreciate learning – Create specific times and spaces for sharing information (for example, include it in job descriptions, schedule specific time or resources available to support learning or knowledge sharing, do lessons-learned exercises, start a listserv, blog or lunchtime discussion group, etc.) and value the learning that is shared (express appreciation for learning and sharing efforts, identify the concrete effects of that knowledge and possible next steps, create rewards, etc.).

3) Be purposeful – Learning is great, no matter what, but with limited time and resources, you can collaborate more effectively by identifying the particular questions or issues that you want to learn more about, and the specific benefits you hope to achieve from that learning .. and then evaluate how you’re doing and consider what will give you a better chance of meeting your goals.

4) Recognize and leave space for resistance – Ours is a culture which values “experts”, and valuing everyone’s knowledge and input can feel like a threat to an “expert’s” status quo, a challenge to those unused to speaking up, and an inefficient way of doing business (“we already tried that”, “everyone knows that doesn’t work because …”, etc.).  So acknowledge the resistance, leave time and space for individual reactions, and patiently focus on creating environments where we learn from expertise, and still leave space for new ideas or approaches that may indeed better fit the current context than the old tried-and-true “truth.”

Collaboration requires this collective learning.  And in that spirit of collaboration, how would you add to this list of ways to strengthen knowledge sharing in your organization or business?

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