Collaborative Leadership

A Collaborative Mindset – 2


In the earlier post on mindsets, or mental models, and how they affect collaboration, I focused on what Judith Innes and Judith Gruber call, in Planning Styles in Conflict, the technical and bureaucratic model of planning and decision-making. This is one of four models they describe in their classification. The four are:

  • technical/bureaucratic
  • social movement
  • political influence
  • collaboration

The earlier post focused on the technical/bureaucratic approach and sketched a way of thinking about mindsets in planning a collaborative project. Here are a few examples of the other models.

Social Movement

In preparing an assessment of a resource management case some years ago, I was interviewing an environmental activist and reviewed with him the different groups of stakeholders I’d been talking to. When I mentioned the industry group, he blanched.

“Why are you talking to them! They’ve had their way with the feds for years and years – they’ve caused all these problems. This process is supposed to give us the first real chance to be heard. It’s our turn! They’ve had all the talking they need – why should I sit down with them? I know we have a few friends in the agency who will really listen to what we have to say.”

For an activist like this environmental litigator, participation is based on commitment to a cause or the potential to build an alliance. Power is used unilaterally to win a favorable decision through use of such techniques as media influence, litigation, lobbying and political advocacy. Knowledge is used selectively to shift public opinion and influence government decisions. This activist has a brilliant record in using those tools and methods, and shifting to a collaborative approach strikes him as at variance with his fundamental values.

Political Influence

Here’s another challenge that’s been thrown at me. When discussing my work with a friend, he listened carefully, then thought for a minute.

“That’s not the way to do it. A group like that – basically the locals – will never solve the problem. To really get the job done, you have to go to DC and get time with the right people. That’s where the money is, that’s where the real decisions are made. You have to know who to go to and how to turn them to your side.”

A political lobbyist like my friend has learned to navigate a volatile political world and has succeeded in getting it to work for him. This mindset looks at participation as limited to those with the political savvy to influence decisions and those who hold power. Meetings are private. The use of power is unilateral to advance a cause and is based on influence held by a few with highly specialized knowledge. By its nature that knowledge is cultivated and kept confidential by the practitioner. It is his or her major asset, and sharing it with others is out of the question.


A third view came during a background briefing on a complicated dispute with strong environmental justice dimensions. The state agency director trying to resolve it explained that she had had to make a tough choice that went against her normal method of dealing with issues like this.

“I like to get everyone to the table to get the problem solved. I don’t know of a better way to find a permanent solution. But in this case, the industry just wouldn’t budge with anyone else in the room. We had to work out an agreement with them alone. I knew I’d get flack from the EJ people – and I have – though I think they’ve gone overboard. The ones that are condemning me now are exactly the groups I’ve spent the most time with. They’ve had a hand in a half dozen other cases, but that doesn’t seem to matter to some of them now.”

This official prefers to approach major controversies in a collaborative manner but at times finds her choices more limited. She sees participation as open to those most engaged by an issue and is comfortable with the form of shared power that is part of this process. In this view, knowledge is a common resource available to all. Plans and decisions are based on agreement among stakeholders and designed to meet multiple interests.

The collaborative model is an unusual concept for many public agencies and can be a difficult one for them to accept. It might at first look as if the agency is surrendering its statutory authority to carry out specific mandates. That is never the case in a collaborative situation; the statutes must always be followed. But in controversial situations other stakeholders can be helpful in defining a solution which the agency can formally adopt. Collaborative groups are informal in nature and have no authority to make public decisions.

How Differing Mindsets Affect Collaboration

These models of planning and action usually coexist in public agencies as well as other types of organizations. Each one is effective in the appropriate context, but people viewing the world from these different perspectives often conflict with one another. That is natural because their training and experience – and the nature of the situations they are most often called upon to deal with – have convinced them that the approach each has internalized is more valid and accurate than the others. The mindsets, in other words, become fixed habits of interpreting events.

As Peter Senge puts it in The Fifth Discipline mental models affect not only what people think but also what they see. The reality they perceive can yield most effectively to the techniques inherent in each model.

Political influence works in getting bills passed in a legislature or convincing a governor to change policy direction or an agency director to reverse a decision. Such changes generated through the political process are often deeply resented by technical staff because they ignore science. A collaborative process may seem useless to a social movement activist who might see it as causing him or her to surrender the most powerful tools of aggressive advocacy they use to achieve objectives.

A collaborative practitioner may get frustrated with stakeholders following any of the other three models and come to regard them simply as difficult people who need to be controlled as threatening to the process.

The Value of Differing Mindsets in Collaboration

To build a culture of collaboration within an agency, there must be a clear understanding of the value and appropriateness of each style to fit differing circumstances. Instead of seeing clashes in ways of approaching problems as negative constraints, a collaborative leader or practitioner can also see them as making useful contributions in the search for negotiated solutions designed to meet the interests of all participants. The key is to find an appropriate role that takes advantage of unique knowledge and methods associated with each model.

  • Technical expertise is important both for educating a collaborative group and for helping to clarify the role of technology in the process. For example, subject matter experts can help sort out issues into those that can be solved with current technology, those that cannot and those that potentially might be solved depending on the outcome of further research and testing.
  • Political influence experts can serve as sounding boards for testing the feasibility of implementation of different proposal solutions in the current political atmosphere.
  • Social movement activists can signal the willingness of their members and constituents to accept proposals. They can also play a critical role in arranging a lull in advocacy attacks on the issue at hand in order to give time for a collaborative process to work.

These are all contributions that relate to factors outside the collaborative group that can have a decisive impact on the outcome of the process. Drawing on experts with mindsets that do not typically use collaborative methods helps test and bring into the open the views that individual participants, the convener and the facilitating practitioner might have about what can be achieved. These contributions add to the shared pool of knowledge that sustains collaboration.


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