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The Inevitable Chicken vs. Egg Battles of Collaboration

by Amy Farley

In a recent post we explored the importance of finding progress in the overwhelming volume of “process” that can surface when a collaborative effort is just getting started. Inherent in helping group members find a sense of progress in their work is the need for a clear and commonly shared sense of destination: it’s difficult to feel forward momentum when you’re lost in the forest and are unsure of which direction the trail might be.

Similarly, without an orientation point for collaborative efforts, it’s hard to inspire a sense of progress. For this reason, you will find “Definition of Success” at the center of the building blocks we recommend collaborative efforts prioritize in their planning efforts.

We’ve seen that bold goals can be powerful aligning and motivating orientation points when seeking to tackle social problems. But setting a bold goal is often a difficult and sometimes contentious process within an organization. It becomes even more challenging in the context of a collaborative effort with a diverse group of stakeholders coming together to find alignment across their work. Almost inevitably when groups begin to define what success looks like, they run into “chicken-and-egg” dilemmas – for example:

Chicken Egg of Collaboration

Although it can be uncomfortable, we encourage groups to simply “start somewhere” and set a stake in the ground, recognize that there are a host of factors that still need to be worked through, and acknowledge that the group will likely need to revisit this initial decision. For example, start by determining who the initial group of collaborators will be or deciding on a rough shared definition of success. Then explore the implications of that decision: (1) if you’ve established the initial group, then determine what you collectively hope to accomplish – your “shared definition of success”; (2) if you’ve set an initial goal for your work together, then ask, “who else needs to be engaged for our efforts to be successful?”  As you explore these implications you can go back and see if the initial stake needs to be repositioned or tweaked in any way.

When you set a concrete goal, for instance, you’ll realize you need to bring additional stakeholders to the table in order to effectively pursue your goal. Once you bring these stakeholders into the fold, they’ll influence the goal itself and your associated strategy and tactics. This can raise tension and uncertainty – but groups should expect, invite, and harness this need to learn and adapt and the tension toward effective evolution instead of trying to avoid or shroud it.

We have seen groups succeed by putting a stake in the ground and then focusing on pursuing an early win. For example, in Detroit a cross-sector coalition came together to save the loss of summer meal sites across the region. In their first year of collaboration, they simply focused on ensuring that no sites were lost. In their second year, they sought to increase coordination across the city and to increase the number of meals provided to low-income children. They are now in the process of setting a clear bold goal to direct and align their efforts.

Having an initial problem to solve together gave the coalition a collective purpose. Over time, they adjusted their approach and began including a broader set of stakeholders as they saw opportunities to improve their collective efforts. They were able to make some progress together before they went back and refined their purpose by tackling the task of setting a collective goal. (Read more about the Detroit coalition in the “Advancing Summer Meals Through Collective Impact” case study.)

In the end, where a collaborative effort chooses to place their first stake matters less than placing a stake somewhere.

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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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