“If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go further, go together” – African proverb
Collaboration has never been so critical. Nor has it been so achievable at a significant scale. I’ve spent the last ten years designing and delivering multi-stakeholder collaborations with my colleagues at Forum for the Future, and acting as an expert advisor to others. Some of our projects are global – such as the Sustainable Shipping Initiative and Tea 2030 – while others work with local communities, such as the UK-based Farm Power and Dairy 2020. These experiences have helped me to see just what makes for successful collaborations, and how they can deliver real, sector-changing outcomes.
Before we even get into the process, there are four essential ingredients that help me to know whether or not it will be worth the effort. The first is purpose. Having a strong and clearly stated goal that everyone understands and supports is critical. This purpose may shift as the project unfolds, but it must always be shared.
This common sense of purpose really depends on people, and their relationships. The success of any collaboration comes down to the individuals involved, and the relationships between them. Investing in this softer side of a process is time well spent.
Then there are the governance and legal frameworks. These are essential because they help to provide safety and stability while navigating uncertainties and challenges. Otherwise it’s as if you’re performing major structural work to a building without scaffolding. Take Competition Law, for instance. While compliance with anti-trust legislation may add a layer of complexity to any collaboration process, it isn’t a barrier in itself. My experience suggests that those citing it as such, may also be those most resistant to change. As long as there is no sharing of any commercially sensitive data, and there are clear benefits to the end consumer (and let’s face it, a sustainable future will benefit us all), this potential barrier is more perceived than real.
Then there’s culture: the values and behaviours behind the process. The most successful initiatives pay as much attention to the collaboration process – which informs how people listen to each other and respond – as to the content. Individuals will have different needs and responses, so the process needs to be reviewed together and adjusted on an ongoing basis. Rigorous project management and professional facilitation skills are also key to keeping it all on track.
If you’ve got those four things right, then you’re ready to go. The only real way to learn this ever-evolving practice is to do it. Here are eight steps I’d advise you to follow:
1. Confirm the need
Identify an issue that you and others have the need and incentive to change.
This might be a complex issue in a shared supply chain, or a knowledge gap in a key, shared, stakeholder group.
2. Convene partners
Build a consortium of anchor partners who are committed to working together
and have the influence to create change. It may require many exploratory conversations before there is enough momentum to form this initial group. But this group carries the commitment and vision to the change you want to create together, and works, where needed, to convene a wider forum.
3. Scope and diagnose
Define the scope of your work. Look to understand the context you’re operating in, the opportunities and challenges. Methods include interviews, desk research, workshops with stakeholders, learning journeys or systems mapping. Diagnose the system together and build up a shared picture of what’s happening and the nature of the challenges you face.
4. Explore emerging futures
Bring people together to think into the future and out of the box; to understand the challenges and opportunities ahead and develop a shared understanding of what needs to change. This is where techniques such as horizon scanning, trends analysis and scenario planning are invaluable.
5. Align around a vision
Build a shared vision or set of principles that embodies the change you want to create. Visions act as an inspiring and strategic anchor for people and organisations, providing a clear set of goals to work towards.
6. Create strategies
Brainstorm potential solutions. Prioritise the solutions where collaborative action has the most potential to create change.
7. Take collective action
Develop parallel projects to deliver the shared vision. These are led by dedicated working groups tasked with finding the best way to approach a problem or opportunity.
8. Remain open to change
Keep learning, and be open to evolving governance structures at this stage. What worked in terms of strategy development might not work when it comes to implementation.
Yes, that’s a lot to get right. But, if eight steps sounds like an uphill struggle, just think how much steeper it would feel if you were to go the journey alone. Collaboration isn’t easy, but it is achievable. And significant change can’t be achieved without it.