Exploring what good collaboration should look like was the focus of a day-long event at the RSA - led by Isabel Carlisle FRSA (who works in education for sustainability with young people) and Patrick Andrews (a former corporate lawyer now involved with eco-car company Riversimple). The event was sponsored by Oxfam and the RSA, as part of the work of the Networks team to help Fellows launch thematic networks.
“There is growing recognition that in an increasingly complex and interdependent world we need to find ways of drawing out our collective intelligence, whether it be through open space, world cafe, dialogue, council, Quaker process, appreciative enquiry or some other practice,” explains Patrick.
In the arts we think we collaborate really well but we don't really
But, of course, it’s easier said than done. Nicholas Colloff (Oxfam Director of Strategy and Innovation) shared that Oxfam is - at any one time - seeking to collaborate with between 1200-1800 partner organisations.
Fern Smith FRSA of Swansea’s Volcano Theatre and arts/sustainability organisation Emergence/Engiad commented “in the arts we think we collaborate really well but we don't really".
The day’s facilitator Sara Wolcott, summed up the challenge in a blog post afterwards: “There is such talk of collaboration at the moment it seems to be infiltrating the zeitgeist: business leaders, climate change specialists, artists, scientists - everyone is talking about it.”
“If everyone was doing it - and doing it well - then I would not have had the privilege of facilitating a workshop on collaboration the other day.”
A key contribution to the day came from Prof. Eve Mitleton-Kelly, Director of LSE’s Complexity Research Programme, who gave an overview of how complexity theory can help us to understand collaboration.
This seemed particularly appropriate, given the catalysing effect that a one-week course at the eco-orientated Schumacher College with noted complexity thinker Meg Wheatley had had on the day’s co-organiser, Isabel Carlisle FRSA.
Eve talked about topics such as reciprocal influence and co-evolution, rather than just adaption - along with key questions such as: "can the system create something new, new order, new relationships, new ways of thinking?"
After this was a 45-minute exercise - looking at the ‘inhibitors’ and ‘enablers’ of collaboration, across areas including political, mental, physical, institutions, spiritual, individual/personal, socio-cultural and time-space.
Institutions disempower their servants and then ask those servants to go out and empower others
Ten flip-charts were soon filled up, and some of the points got pretty challenging: “Institutions disempower their servants and then ask those servants to go out and empower others”.
Jocelyn Cunningham, Director of arts and society, RSA Projects found the day’s explorations very rewarding: “It was great to be in a room full of such experienced ‘professional’ collaborators – too usually an invisible and vastly underrated skill. This was a particularly unique gathering as we represented different sectors, had very different backgrounds – from third sector and NGO’s to business to the arts. All with a determination to ‘tell it like it is’ and articulating the complexity of it all as opposed to simplifying the challenges”.
Facilitator Sara Wolcott commented: “I walked away from the workshop remembering that visions are only possible once your feet are planted on the ground. And that in order to create safety and security, we have to let ourselves be at least a little bit unsafe - to step away from our own personal 'normal behavior' just enough so that we can find who we are with one another.”
“Indeed, for a group of people whose work requires a fair amount of goal-focus, not having a precise goal and instead meandering towards one another was, for many, a real delight.”
All this is not to say that any transcendent common purpose emerged over the day, in the group.
Organiser Patrick pointed out: “Isabel and I, as instigators of the gathering, are left with a big question: how to proceed from here? We all work in different sectors, are based in different parts of the country, use communication technology in different ways, have no shared project. How do we collaborate? How, putting it in complexity terms, can we build an enabling environment to encourage effective and worthwhile collaboration?”
One participant candidly commented: "I would lay some money that there's no common intent in this room", and at one point another said she was getting angry about how class-based it all was – encouraging us to focus on collaboration in low-income communities, rather than taking a lead from “the people in power who just talk about it”.
The somewhat self-explorative tenor of the day led another participant to comment: “But I like analytic approaches… not just touchy-feely”.
Isabel and Patrick will have their work cut out deciding a way forward for this group, given the tensions between the more analytical/academic and the more experiential/ body-based approaches, along with the sheer diversity of initial participants. But anything that can yield better collaboration seems worth the effort.
• The Untethered Donkey~ a place for sharing thoughts, knowledge and wisdom about collaboration (Isabel and Patrick's blog)
• turning towards human (Sara Wolcott's blog - includes blog report on the event, titled 'Saftey and possibilities')