Generative Collaboration: Partnerships for 21st Century Challenges

In the 21st century, people are looking for ways to build coalitions and partnerships that make a difference in the world. Whether it’s corporate, non-profit, or governmental strategy, organizations and groups are realizing they can’t do it all. The challenges are too big. People, ideas, and needs are too diverse. More traditional ways of working together fall short as more people recognize the urgency of issues we face--climate change, social and economic disparities, ideological differences, globalization, and technological development.

This level of shared response calls for new ways of thinking about collaboration and co-creation. Partnerships should allow us to anticipate and understand changes we face as they happen—both globally and locally. We need to build capacity to respond quickly and appropriately. As we work together, we must consider global issues as they manifest in our local context. Information and other resources have to flow across our networks to allow for agile and responsive action.

In HSD, we know that the capacity to adapt locally enables people everywhere to thrive as they deal with global issues. Agile partnerships address current and emergent issues. They build connections to leverage different needs and contributions partners bring to the table. Generative partnerships transcend traditional questions about issues, such as power imbalance, resource flow, and social inequalities.

There is no one answer or formula for creating these agile, generative partnerships. Each pairing and connection will be unique and complex. Tools exist that can assist with the work to be done. The challenges that face these partners, however, goes beyond the day-to-day tasks and long-term work. Generative partnerships require foundational patterns that are based in shared meaning; mutual influence; and open, authentic exchange of ideas, time, and other resources. 

I have been lucky enough to work with a few partnerships that figured out how to transcend the usual challenges and entanglements. If we pay attention, these kinds of working teams offer insights into what is important in their working relationships. As I consider how these partners worked, I have come to believe they first established conditions that shaped their powerful and useful partnerships. I offer three questions that can launch conversation and shared action to build the foundational patterns I spoke of earlier: 1) Shared meaning; 2) Mutual influence; and 3) Open, authentic exchange of ideas, time, and other resources. These questions emerge from the Generative Engagement model that offers insights about conditions that can shape patterns of adaptive capacity between and among partners and coalitions. In the following paragraphs, I will explain each question briefly, using an example from one of the most generative partnerships I have observed.

Question 1: “What is the common impact we want to have?”
This first question is what calls us to the table—and then keeps us there. We engage in shared dialogue, standing shoulder to shoulder as we address our common challenges. Rather than pointing and blaming and excusing, naming the shared focus helps us to hear the other and look for common concerns, needs, and aspirations.

In one of the toughest partnerships I observed, two entities had spent years competing for resources. They worked in strict silos, even as they shared all the same clients. Members of each group spent time blaming the other group for the difficulties they had working with their shared clients.

Finally, a few years ago, the visionary leaders of each organization sat down together and came to some decisions. They agreed that their work was similar, but not the same. They recognized both groups were committed to doing the right things for the clients, and that each group’s work complemented the other’s. They ultimately realized they could do so much more by working together than they had been able to do working separately. So, they agreed to come together to share the work and to work through each barrier as it emerged.

Question 2: “What do we want our mutually reciprocal relationship to look like?”
Agreeing first about what we each need and what we have to contribute sets conditions for transparency and trust. Set boundaries and expectations that bring people to the table with equal voices. Each participant can expect to contribute what they can and receive benefit they need in a mutual, reciprocal partnership.

In their earliest meetings, the two leaders spent time talking about what each one of them needed, what they saw as barriers to their work, and what each could contribute to the shared goal. They talked about different ways power imbalances could get in the way of their working relationship. There were different service providers who had more or less training and education. One leader was responsible for the service providers, who did their work on sites that were under the management and control of the other leader. The long history of competition and blame had set up traditions of competition between the people they were now asking to work together.

In their earliest conversations they came to agreements about how they would handle resources, such as money, information flow, client information, and space. They agreed how they would handle problems and challenges as they came up. They set rules about their working relationship, including how they would support each other when it was needed. They didn’t try to anticipate and codify everything, but they did set the conditions that would let them work out the challenges they knew would emerge.

Question 3: “How do we enable coherent connections that limit the ambiguity of difference?”
In partnerships, particularly those that include highly diverse partners, we can’t afford to assume that we have shared understandings or perspectives. Building shared understanding requires that we stand in inquiry with each other. We check for understanding. We clarify intent. We check our assumptions. We engage with each other in open and authentic dialogue that ensures coherence and understanding.

These two leaders agreed to a regular meeting where nothing was off the table. There were no questions that couldn’t be asked. Sometimes a question couldn’t be answered, due to confidentiality or timing, for instance. They agreed that explaining that was enough, and that further answers would be shared when it was possible. They talked about their individual and shared assumptions. They worked through their disagreements, taking responsibility for their own reactions.

Not only did they do this for each other, these two leaders modeled it for staff members. They engaged the teams in generative conversations—with everyone present. Everyone learned to mediate each other’s questions and to encourage open dialogue and positive discourse. Problems were resolved, and new patterns began to emerge in the working relationships.

HSD offers models and methods that can help us as we use these questions to lay the foundations for generative partnerships. Those models and methods help us in the ongoing cycles of Adaptive Action that move us forward in the complex and uncertain world of the 21st century. Join us on December 17, 18, and 20 for our Adaptive Action Lab: 21st Century Collaboration: Co-creating Shared Impact, to learn more about creating patterns of generative collaboration to create powerful impact in the world. For more information, follow this link.

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