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3 Lessons for Funders from “Collaborating With the Enemy”

Posted on October 10, 2017
By Chris Thompson

Two business people shouting in megaphones at each other 5 3.jpegIf anyone knows his way around solving wicked, persistent problems through collaboration it’s Adam Kahane. The Canadian change-agent has facilitated collaborations that have catalyzed peace in South Africa, Guatemala, Colombia and beyond. And I thought my work to support a workforce collaboration was tough…

In his new book, Collaborating With the Enemy, Kahane generously shares insights from the trenches and advocates for a more ambitious kind of collaboration, which he calls “stretch collaboration.” Advocates of the collective impact framework, as well as fans of Margaret Wheatley’s wisdom on complexity will recognize many of Kahane’s recommendations.

Kahane highlights the limitations of the conventional approach to collaboration—which requires a harmonious team that agrees on where it’s going, how it’s going to get there, and who needs to do what—and makes the case that catalyzing enduring, positive change within complex civic systems requires a stretch approach that embraces discord, experimentation, and genuine co-creation.

Kahane’s book is a rich resource for all champions of collaboration, and I believe it offers three important lessons that are particularly relevant to foundations and other funders of collaboration.

Lesson #1 – Step In

In conventional collaboration, Kahane says, we focus on trying to change what other people are doing. Stretch collaboration requires us to first examine how our actions contribute to the performance and the outcomes of the complex system – whether they be the complex systems that shape a nation, or the complex systems that influence public health outcomes in a neighborhood. This is great advice for all champions of collaboration, but especially for funders. Too often, funders use their money to encourage others to collaborate to create change without adequately examining the role they play in creating the status quo.

Funders need to recognize that they are part of the complex system they are trying to change. Kahane warns that many of our most cherished identities – expert, professional, authority, leader, hero – impede collaboration because they place us hierarchically above or apart from others.

Lesson #2 – Co-create

If funders embrace the concept that they are part of the system and to achieve the desired change they too will have to change their behavior, then an important new behavior for funders to embrace is co-creation. Funders should engage with other players in the system to co-create potential solutions.

Kahane says that the real work of transformation is not choosing among existing, fixed options, but to co-create new options as the work unfolds. We do not know in advance the solutions to the wicked, persistent adaptive challenges tangled within our complex civic systems. We learn the solutions by developing an iterative approach with others. An approach built through listening to others to discover options that are not yet apparent.

Co-creation is the antithesis of the traditional model where funders either declare the solution they want and fund it, or solicit solutions from organizations that compete to prove they have the “right” answer.

For foundations with rigorous, but rigid grantmaking processes, being an active participant in co-creation is impossible. But if a foundation wants to address the root cause of persistent problems, rather than just treating the symptoms, they need to engage in cocreation.

Lesson #3 – Get comfortable being uncomfortable

One inherent truth with co-created solutions that emerge from a collaboration is that we don’t know for sure that they will work. We need to be willing to experiment, fail, step back and step forward again. Kahane says it is an ongoing and emergent process in which it is more important to act than to agree. Funders are accustomed to funding clear plans. Kahane agrees that it is a useful discipline to create a plan – if we hold it lightly and change it when necessary.

Kahane acknowledges that co-creation is both exciting and unnerving. One reason it is unnerving is that it is an acknowledgement that we do not control the systems we are trying to change. We are more comfortable being in control, but Kahane reminds us that every day complexity is increasing and control is decreasing.

Our desire for control is married to our preference for certainty. We are so well trained in solving technical problems with clear answers that we expect the same kind of certainty when dealing with wicked civic problems. There are no certain answers to complex, emergent challenges. If we insist on being certain we don’t leave much room for other people’s answers and therefore we make it more difficult to work together. Funders accustomed to control and certainty may unintentionally be delivering the message to others in the system that their financial resources make them superior. This, Kahane warns, is a recipe not for generative collaboration, but for degenerative imposition.

Kahane’s lessons are challenging. But his experience – and the transformative change he has helped catalyze – should inspire funders and all champions of collaboration to acknowledge our own role in creating the civic challenges we’re trying to address, to concede we don’t have the answers, and to abandon our need for control.

He helps leaders design, implement and sustain cross-sector collaborations that catalyze enduring, positive community change.

Collective Impact, Collaborative Leadership, Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson

By Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson is president of Civic Collaboration Consultants, LLC. Chris Thompson’s goal is to help others achieve enduring, positive community change. He has worked in dozens of communities to bring change to such complex civic systems as economic development, talent development, education, health care and food security. For nearly a decade he worked for the Fund for Our Economic Future, an unprecedented collaboration of philanthropy serving Northeast Ohio.

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