Increasingly, leaders and managers are looking to collaborative methods for dealing with contentious policy issues. When making a first attempt, they may well recognize that success takes a lot more than bringing people together to talk. They know they need guidance.
The solution is often to call on a professional mediator or facilitator to design and run the process. That’s great for practitioners, but is it the only step necessary to get good results? Simply put, no.
Even with the best mediators, these methods won’t be fully successful unless the convening organizations build their own collaborative capacity. Buying know-how from an external consultant is a start, but letting that knowledge walk out the door after a project is done can undermine initial success.
Building that capacity can be hard because collaboration requires a distinctive attitude about decision-making and how to deal with conflict. New skills have to be learned, but, more important, a collaborative mindset has to be internalized.
This need was driven home to me some years ago when I had a chance to observe a series of meetings intended to improve working relationships among long-time adversaries. A group of cooperating public agencies convened the process to develop a new strategy on community health.
They wanted to approach the task by working collaboratively with a coalition of community activists. The intent was to improve understanding and build collaboration for future programs as well as for the immediate purpose of defining a strategy.
Relations between these groups had often been tense and antagonistic in the past, but both sides showed a lot of interest in a more collaborative approach. Constant fighting over funding priorities and health standards wasn’t leading anywhere. Collaboration seemed the way to go. The problem was that the organizational cultures of these groups had never put a high value on such a process, and few of them had much experience with it.
As a result, the participants tried to work collaboratively while operating under non-collaborative assumptions. The conveners hired an experienced facilitator, a colleague of mine, with a strong background in conflict resolution, but his role prior to the meeting was limited to advising the conveners. Much of this advice, however, was filtered through a more adversarial mindset.
It was no surprise, then, that during the meeting both sides fell back on a familiar pattern of talking past each other. Agency leaders presented their collaborative intentions and principles but made very limited efforts to engage the other participants in an exploration of new ideas. Many of their comments were defensive, aimed at identifying all the constraints that limited their ability to act.
The community leaders, for their part, played offense, though in a restrained way. They made their case for immediate action much as they had done before in traditional public hearings, media events and legislative lobbying. During discussions, they brought out their continuing frustration with agency inaction but showed little interest in making new proposals on how to build an effective partnership.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the reactions were also familiar. The agencies were satisfied. Staff congratulated each other and thanked the facilitator for a job well done. They were obviously relieved to get through a potentially confrontational session in an orderly and, from their perspective, productive manner.
The community groups had the opposite reaction – frustration that yet another meeting had produced no results. They heard commitments to principles but not to action. The relationship between agencies and communities remained stuck where it had always been.
Collaboration requires a set of skills and a mindset that differ sharply from those of advocacy and bureaucratic routine. The capacity to collaborate has to be developed carefully over time, just as the skills of negotiating, advocacy, litigation and lobbying take time to master.
Building collaborative capacity is difficult because it involves challenging long-held assumptions about how to achieve real-world results. People who have been effective through use of technical expertise, top-down decision-making, advocacy or political influence often find it hard to switch to unfamiliar collaborative methods. That’s completely understandable. Using a new process to deal with conflict can feel untrustworthy, impractical and risky.
However, building collaborative capacity doesn’t mean applying this approach to the exclusion of other methods. It means understanding how and when it is appropriate to use the collaborative model. That takes skill and experience. Collaboration can’t be achieved through a statement of intention and a change of vocabulary.