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The Complexity of Collaboration

by Amy Farley

Goals such as “ending childhood hunger” or “building a healthcare system that works for all” are aimed at complex problems and generally require complex solutions. We all know that these types of problems can’t be solved by just one person, but the need to engage cross-sector stakeholders – most often times individuals who have vastly different perspectives on the problem and potential solutions – adds yet another layer of complexity to the problem.

Collaborative groups often search for “best practices” to guide their efforts, asking questions like “how can we structure ourselves for the best results” and “how do we ensure our measures of success are ‘right’?”

Cynefin Framework

We have found the “Cynefin framework” a helpful reference point when such questions arise. The framework articulates different operating environments and the strongest approaches to problem-solving within these environments. The framework suggests that “best practice” should only be adopted when “the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all.”

Generally this is not the case for collaborative efforts seeking to tackle big, hairy social problems. Instead, in complex environments, the framework suggests that stakeholders should “probe, sense, and respond” in order to test different tactics and evolve according to what they learn along the way. This parallels our discussion of putting a stake in the ground and intentionally learning and evolving as a response to facing an otherwise cyclical “chicken vs. egg” dilemma such as, “How can we set a goal without the right people in the room, but how do we know who should be in the room without having established a clear goal?”

Leaders of collaborative efforts should be careful to recognize that their fellow collaborators likely have different levels of experience and comfort working in such an environment. Individuals with experience as executives, for example, generally have honed their comfort with ambiguity. They have made big decisions without complete information and they have bet on strategies without a guarantee of success. On the other hand, those whose daily roles are focused on program execution and staff management often feel uncomfortable in the ambiguous decision-making that surrounds collaborative efforts.

Early in a collaborative effort it is important for group members to confront the implications of this environment, acknowledging the complexity of their work as they set measures of success, build their culture intentionally, establish their governance and structure, etc. To help bolster the confidence of group members who might be less comfortable operating amid the ambiguity and complexity of collaboration, we have found success in simply connecting such individuals with peers in other collaborative efforts. It’s easy to fall into the trap of hoping to find the “formula” for perfect implementation of “collective impact”. Talking with others who have navigated collaboration successfully is always a powerful reminder of the messiness inherent in the work.

We also encourage leaders in collaborative efforts to be intentional about “narrating the change” the group is moving through together. This can help members find progress within the complexity of the situation and the slog of process. It’s important to continually reflect on “where we were a year ago,” “where we are today,” “what open hypotheses we have”, “what we have learned since our last meeting,” etc. This provides the group with a common narrative and helps turn implicit indicators of progress into a shared, explicit understanding.

While we recognize these tactics don’t eliminate the complexity of the work, they can go a long way in helping groups find comfort with the ambiguity and complexity that pervade collaboration around bold goals.

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About Amy Farley

In her role as senior consultant, Amy Farley leads client relationships and engagements, facilitates diverse leadership teams in bold decision making and supports their execution, and contributes to overall strategic firm initiatives. Amy has a unique blend of business, nonprofit, and foundation experience, with a proven record of leading cross-functional teams and driving creative solutions that have delivered increased revenue and growth. See Amy's full bio

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