As the owner of a B Corp that helps changemakers build connection and engagement to advance social progress, I engage in a good amount of collaboration. Sometimes it’s rewarding but sometimes, it borders on downright painful. The factor that makes the difference is the quality of relationships between the people involved.
In my work, I see a variety of collaboration situations. Depending on the day, I might find myself
- discussing partnership opportunities with a fellow consultant,
- helping to form a team that’s organizing a crowdfunding campaign, or
- facilitating a dialogue between businesses, citizen groups and social activists about transitioning to a sustainable economy.
While coordination between two parties is enough of a challenge, it's at the multi-organization level that the complexity associated with collaboration comes into sharper focus. Below I've detailed two different multi-org collaborations and good practices that emerged from each experience.
Building Connection within the B Corp Community
The Discover Doing event I co-organized with my fellow B Local: Mid-Atlantic steering committee members began as an opportunity to promote the B Corp movement in the Washington, DC area. Ultimately, it was this project that transformed us from a bunch of unacquainted people on a brand new committee into a team.
Discover Doing - How People Like You Are Changing the World was an event in DC last July that told the stories of people using business as a force for good. Guest speaker Max Wohlgemuth Kitslaar, recounted his motorcycle journey from Chile to New York City and shared inspiring stories of people he met along the way who realized their bold ideas for positive impact. Several B Corps from within – and outside – the Mid-Atlantic region generously served as event sponsors and donated an array of specialty food and beverages.
One of my most important takeaways from this event is that what happens behind the scenes is just as important as the results that are achieved. For Discover Doing, it was Max’s visit to DC that prompted us to form the bonds needed to organize and execute an event. Among the factors that contributed to the success of this event were:
1) Commitment to achieving a common goal.
Our shared dedication to increasing awareness of the B Corp movement inspired everyone to allocate the time, funds and other resources needed to make the event a success.
2) Frequent communication about hold-ups and progress.
One party might have resources or expertise that can help another address a specific challenge, but it's impossible to recognize that opportunity without communication. This kind of communication is only really helpful when collaborators are willing to pitch in to help one another. Luckily our shared commitment established a team mindset that encouraged mutual support.
3) Empowering each communicator to play to their strengths.
Each company on the steering committee brought different resources and skills to the table. One team member had access to the perfect venue, another had the capital to pay for drinks, a third had the marketing chops to create attractive promoting and a fourth had the time and charm to recruit sponsors. Teams achieve more when collaborators are forthcoming about their strengths and empower one another to assume the roles they fill best.
4) Ensuring follow through on multiple levels.
Collaborative efforts have the advantage of creating external accountability - it's easy to put off internal deadlines but when others are counting on you, you can't afford to drop the ball. We all had a good sense of follow-through, but we also helped keep each other accountable with gentle reminders. Especially on non-hierarchal teams, everyone should assume personal responsibility and chip in to keep their teammates on track.
Ripples of Change Beyond the B Corp Community
Initiated by Steve Shaff, Founder of Community-Vision Partners and Founding Executive Director of the Chesapeake Sustainable Business Council, Better Economy for All is a movement that aims to mobilize the public, private and plural sectors to address problems negatively impacting quality of life in the Washington, DC area.
About 30 people representing responsible business and citizens' groups came together in September 2015 to discuss what a more equitable economy might look like on a local scale. Getting key players in the same room to discuss specific challenges was an accomplishment in its own right, however more work is needed for us to sustain this collaborative effort in its infancy. Next, we have to map out activities underway and mobilize resources.
The main outcome of the meeting, which I co-facilitated with Jeremy Grandstaff, Co-Founder of S&G Endeavors, was consensus to establish a team of diverse representatives from the Washington, DC area to help to design a summit. The summit will bring together stakeholders to further the establishment of a shared sustainable economy by: 1. Creating a concrete and actionable strategic plan for transition that’s supported by the community and 2. Establishing a backbone organization that can support the implementation of this strategic plan. Participation in this movement provides an opportunity for Shifting Patterns, as a B Corp, to “B the change” by working alongside the public and plural sectors to support the transition to a new economy.
Some of the valuable lessons I learned facilitating and participating in this effort include:
5) Successful collaborations start with intention.
This means taking the time to consider whether collaboration is needed, and if so, whether it is worth the time and effort to work with others to achieve the results you’re seeking. If collaboration is appropriate and necessary, intention also requires developing a clear and compelling purpose that unites everyone involved. This means developing a purpose statement that is mutually understood and collectively owned.
6) Process matters as much as task.
When a group is formed there's often a tendency to get right to work. While it may be expedient in the short-term, this approach is unlikely to succeed in the big picture. Without taking the time up front to determine where the group is headed (purpose) and how to get there (process), challenges that occur along the way can be harder to navigate and take longer to resolve. Creating a team charter the explains how everyone will work together (i.e., how often you will meet, how you will communicate between meetings, how decisions will be made, etc.) can be a great way to establish shared expectations and cement a solid plan for accomplishing your purpose.
7) Put supports in place early on.
Collaborations are more likely to succeed when there's a support system in place. From a structural perspective this means ensuring that there are sufficient resources to sustain collaboration over time. Depending on the scale of collaboration, resources can range from a dedicated conference call line or meeting space to the establishment to of a backbone organization to assume administrative functions. Support at the individual level takes place when participants are empowered to ask for and provide support to each other. This involves building relationships that are grounded in trust, mutual respect and open communication.
8) Team building isn't just about feeling warm and fuzzy.
Making time for participants to get to know each other helps form bonds that result in productive and healthy relationships. These relationships are crucial for shared success.
We live in a world of seemingly insurmountable challenges like economic inequality, social injustice and climate change. Although collaboration comes with its own set of risks (you could take on more than you bargained for, squander resources or end up damaging your reputation) it also has the potential to create enduring solutions on a bigger scale.
For me, being part of something greater than myself and getting to know people who share a common interest make the rewards of collaboration much greater than the risks. After all, isn’t it what “B(ing) the change” is all about?
This post was published by RoundPeg Communications on May 18, 2016.