Finding Progress in Process: When There’s No Impact on Day 1
In the 1860s John D. Rockefeller experimented with creating an open coalition that would collaborate to ensure oil output was carefully disbursed, ensuring high profits across all members of the coalition. But decisions were slow to move and members cheated in order to gain higher profits for their individual firms. Rockefeller scrapped the collaborative approach and instead bulldozed forward with the Standard Oil Company – buying out competitors, forcing others out of business, and ultimately growing a profitable empire.
As the Rockefeller case illustrates, succeeding in a collaborative effort can feel like a long, painful and frustrating slog. Going alone often feels safer, easier, faster and more productive. Yet, it is only through the benefits of collaboration that we can truly tackle social problems at the magnitude they exist.
When faced with meeting after meeting about setting measures of success (even though the measures will likely change in a year) and determining the “right” initial governance structure (even though it will evolve over time), participants in collaborative efforts can easily fall into frustration and doubt early in the process. They start asking: “Where are the results? What difference does all this talk about process, culture, etc. actually make? We aren’t here for collaboration’s sake – we’re here to have an impact!” As individuals, we want a sense of where this is all heading, and we want to know each day that we are moving towards that destination.
The work of Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer confirms this natural penchant for seeing progress in our work. Studying over 12,000 daily work diaries of individuals across industries, they found that one thing clearly increased the degree to which individuals were engaged and productive: a sense of making progress on meaningful work.
In our work with collaborative efforts we have seen that as groups first start down the path of collaboration, the collective “sense of making progress” can quickly diminish. Making decisions about decisions, debating group structure and wordsmithing measures of success do not naturally feel like progress. But, indeed, moving through a strong initial planning process will lay the solid foundation necessary to support long-term, high-impact collaboration. To sustain the development of a strong collaborative effort, participants must find progress in the process.
That means setting expectations early in a collaborative effort around the importance of laying a strong foundation and acknowledging that the process of laying this foundation will be messy, likely slower than desired, and will not directly result in social impact. It also means giving stakeholders specific process-related “wins” to track. Some examples of tracked and celebrated process-related wins by the groups with whom we have worked include things such as:
- The development of a temporary structure and initial roles for stakeholders
- Stakeholders prioritizing, attending and actively participating in the group’s meetings
- Stakeholders actively participating outside of formal meetings, through action items, pre-work, and idea sharing in follow up to specific meeting conversations
- Important decision making about culture, structure, and vision/goals/strategies
- Belief among key stakeholders that effective collaboration is possible and worthwhile
- The mapping of the broader stakeholder environment to identify actors who can affect or will be affected by the goals of the collaborative effort
Setting and celebrating such wins will not necessarily make collaboration speedier or less complex, but it might just provide the sense of progress needed to march through the process and get to results – the kind of dramatic results only strong collaboration can produce.