With political vitriol at an all time high in government and beyond, authentic collaboration—where multiple, even divisive, perspectives are welcome—can seem unattainable.
But it is possible—and it doesn’t require converting everyone to a single point of view. We waste time asking, “How can we change the way people think?” when we should be asking, “How do we change the way we do things?”
Changing how we do things isn’t just about reworking laws, policies, and systems; it means rethinking the very act of problem-solving. We believe there are five basic tenets to successful collaboration:
- Engaging unlikely bedfellows
- Creating a resonant vision
- Cultivating relationships
- Communicating across worldviews
- Committing to ongoing learning
Over the past two years, we’ve researched an organization that embodies all of these: Convergence Center for Policy Resolution “convenes people and groups with conflicting views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on critical national issues.” Its projects include reimagining K-12 education, addressing economic mobility and poverty, reforming the federal budget process, financing long-term care, and improving the dietary choices and wellness of Americans.
The organization’s unique approach to collaboration enables adversaries to work together and develop breakthrough solutions. It starts with targeting and framing an issue, and then enrolling a wide spectrum of stakeholders. Over an extended period of time, these stakeholders attend a series of expertly facilitated meetings to explore the issue and identify solutions, and finally take joint action.
Convergence plays a strategic leadership role in this collaborative process, similar to the role of the “backbone organization” in a collective impact approach. One crucial difference, however, is that it acts as a neutral outsider; it conceptualizes the project, creates the container, and holds the space for those within the field to identify their own solutions. This approach reflects that of a “bridge builder”—someone who can make connections outside of a field of advocacy or practice—as recently described in an article by Lisa Witter and Joanna Mikulsky.
Foundational to Convergence’s success is the principle of engaging unlikely bedfellows. Stakeholder diversity helps eliminate the “echo chamber” effect (also described by Witter and Mikulsky) created when like-minded groups talk only with one another. The organization vets potential stakeholders to determine their capacity for working with the tensions and complexities of diverse perspectives and their willingness to participate in an emergent process, believing that each ideological camp holds a crucial piece of the puzzle and that the tension of differing views actually creates better solutions.
Convergence exemplifies the power of creating a resonant vision in its approach to tackling big social issues. Framing the issue in a way that galvanizes all stakeholders takes tremendous time, energy, and skill. For example, when the organization decided to focus on addressing K-12 education in the United States, it engaged in hundreds of interviews to identify the best way to frame the project. While everyone agreed the system did not serve the needs of many students, they had difficulty finding consensus about how to move forward. One stakeholder commented that the current system was based on a 19th-century factory model that could never meet the needs of 21st-century students. This comment sparked a new narrative that excited stakeholders across the ideological spectrum: “reimagining education for the 21st century!”
It’s important to note that Convergence focuses on framing the problem, not formulating the solution(s). Rather, it believes the solution emerges through the process of authentic collaboration. This differs significantly from an advocacy-based approach, in which a group agrees on a solution and then mobilizes as much support for that solution as possible. As a result, solutions created through Convergence’s collaborative approach are better able to weather the resistance that all change efforts face, because some of that resistance is built into the process.
Change takes time, and so does cultivating relationships. In an article last year, Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman, and David Sawyer wrote, “The single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants.”
Convergence creates a meaningfully different kind of collaborative environment by prioritizing strong, trusting, cross-sector relationships. Its commitment to relationships is apparent in the time it invests in recruiting stakeholders, the frequency and duration of stakeholder contact, and how it addresses challenges (many of which have the potential to derail a project) throughout the process.
The organization also recognizes that initially people may need to “get on their soapbox” and state the positions of their organizations, and then they are invited to share what truly motivates them. In our research, stakeholders frequently expressed surprise that those with vastly different ideological positions were committed to remarkably similar issues on a deeper level. While identifying underlying needs is a familiar principle of conflict resolution and mediation, when applied in the context of addressing issues of national importance, it can have dramatic effects.
When it comes to communicating across worldviews, it’s essential to cultivate stakeholders’ ability. Convergence’s Project on Nutrition and Wellness brought together consumer advocates, grocers, food manufacturers, public health groups, health insurers, and others—groups that were rarely in the same room together and when they were, played adversarial roles. Recognizing that these groups each had their own jargon, the Convergence team created a glossary so that each group could literally understand what others were saying. The team also had to translate the various needs and constraints of each constituent group. For example, many public advocates didn’t fully appreciate the constraints of those in the food industry. These efforts enhanced communication, which created a more nuanced picture of the problem and allowed workable solutions to emerge. The idea may seem simple, but creating a shared language makes it much more possible to create a shared future.
Committing to ongoing learning helps avoid stakeholders’ tendency to privilege the data that supports their existing position. For example, one of the challenges for determining workable policy proposals is that recommendations are often rooted in entrenched ideological views. Convergence’s Long-Term Care Financing Collaborative helped catalyze a groundbreaking study of actuarial data by two research institutions with national credibility across the ideological spectrum. The study, which examined the potential impact of long-term care financing policy proposals, allowed this diverse group of stakeholders to accept and work from shared data. By allowing stakeholders to learn from and with each other, Convergence creates an environment that replaces certainty with curiosity, thereby enabling breakthrough solutions to form where stalemate once lived.
Change is complex and certainly not linear. Convergence’s approach “lives” this complexity and uncertainty. In its own words, the organization is “building the ship while sailing it.” Its success is due in part to actively and simultaneously engaging each of the five tenets of authentic collaboration, and its work demonstrates the powerful possibilities of authentic collaboration at a time when partisan rancor and stalemate feel inevitable. It proves we can change the world—collaboratively—without anyone relinquishing their core values.