Understanding the tactics of collaboration can help make the unique value of working well together real. It’s important because the whole—all of us, humanity—can be greater than the sum of our parts. We often discuss collaboration in terms of its relationship to competition; competition, at its best, can make each part more valuable and more effective, but collaboration adds value to the whole by focusing on how the parts work together.

Effective collaboration depends on effective relationships between humans. If the right people are in the room, and if there is time and space for like minds and potential partners to find and engage with each other, then even the worst-designed gathering can be productive. If the right people are also talented, driven, and a bit entitled, they will make the space they need to be productive regardless of the meeting’s design. However, setting aside time and space is not the whole story. Effective collaboration also requires that all collaborators gain value from collaborating. When the value is reciprocal, other barriers become smaller and the collaboration is easier to sustain.

Now, if we think of conferences or meetings as our tools for offline collaboration, then we need better tools. Our facilitation methodologies need to evolve and professionalize to focus on the experience and needs of participants. In his paper “Creating Participatory Events,” Executive Director of Aspiration Allen Gunn describes the problem like this:

The Internet era has ushered in a broad new panorama of collaborative tools and interaction opportunities in the virtual realm. But live “offline” events such as conferences, given their unique potential for connecting like minds and catalyzing relationships, have remained relatively non-collaborative affairs, employing dichotomous formats such as “keynotes,” slideware presentations, and panels to let one or several speakers relate across a veritable moat to silent and largely passive audiences.

And here’s the part that makes event organizers nervous:

Participatory event refers to a gathering where participants shape the agenda before and during the event, instead of reading a fixed schedule beforehand and then shuffling between sessions that have been slotted weeks or months in advance. The focus in such events is placed on peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and network building instead of large group listening.

Participatory events, as Gunn describes them, are not an easier or cheaper alternative than standard meetings and conferences. In fact, they are more difficult and require completely different muscles. Participatory events require vulnerability. Engaging fully in a participatory event requires that those with status risk their social currency by engaging in conversation as equals. It also requires an experienced facilitator. Gunn writes:

If you have folks already in a common frame of analysis, there is benefit in the knowledge arbitrage that comes from surfacing differences and emergent serendipities found in the in-betweens. But if you have heterogeneous value systems, you lean more toward finding common ground and facilitating value exchange in those realms. It's a Venn diagram; you do a lot of the same things in either case, but there are approaches that vary based on the presence or absence of collective norms and shared perspectives.

For humans to work well together, we must pay attention to more than just our own self-interest. This got me thinking about a hierarchy of collaboration. By hierarchy, I mean that we can best move forward not by developing skills or becoming proficient with a specific methodology, but by advancing through stages of moral development, where we learn to weigh personal benefit against collective benefit. Here are the four stages of this development as I see them:

Stage 1: Commitment

In my experience, the first stage of any collaborative effort is to create a context for membership. Either the participants or the convener can establish this, and each member must commit to it to join. Individuals or individual organizations associate their name with the collective’s—for example, prominent organizations make public commitments of action within the Clinton Global Initiative collaborative. This public declaration essentially puts an organization’s reputation up as collateral for the commitment.

Stage 2: Partnership

Give and take defines the partnership stage—each party gives something of value and takes away something value. Formal contracts and trust built over time enable this very market-based stage of collaboration. To fund promising social enterprises, for example, impact investors must structure complex investments into a stack of capital from a range of funders, including government-sponsored loan guarantees, concessionary investment capital, grant money from foundations. In their book Impact Investing, Jed Emerson and Antony Bugg-Levine write:

To make this complex capital stack work, impact investors need to become effective at collaborating with donors and governments. But the providers of these subsidies typically focus on maximizing only public goods and social outcomes, and fail to recognize (or even find suspect) the profit an enterprise could create.

The successful impact investor can sell partnership as a route to improving the risk return calculation for everyone—each partner will get more of what they want, thanks to the dynamics of the partnership as a whole.

Stage 3: Vulnerability

Collaborators must all be vulnerable for trust to develop between them. In her talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and struggle for worthiness, but it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

We must let go of the myth that sets “my” success as a precursor to “our” success. Vulnerability requires that we let go of control. No one of us can solve the problems we are facing, but few of us are integrating this reality into our work.

Stage 4: Emergence

Emergence occurs when independent and unordered parts come together to form a pattern or an identifiable whole. This is the highest stage of collaboration. The nonprofit consulting agency FSG describes “embracing emergence” essentially as an act of faith. Solutions to extremely complex problems such poverty or climate change can emerge from many groups working together to create collective impact—a framework that doesn’t prescribe explicit outputs or milestones, but instead focuses on increasing the likelihood that an unforeseen solution will emerge.

Our problems are bigger than any of us. I hear my friends and colleagues lament the state of the world. I hear in their voices exhaustion and frustration, but also isolation. We must move beyond platitude and operationalize collaboration. We must rethink our tactics, develop better tools for interaction, and summon the courage to evolve beyond competition to understand individual success as an outcome of collective success.

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