Collaboration techniques

by Jini Stolk

My coffee shop has a lot of artists. I like observing as they discuss a screenplay, script, or production. Ideas are bounced from one person to another; notes are made; concepts are sketched out; and once the last latte is finished, everyone has a better sense of what the final product will be, and a clear idea of next steps and their own to-do list.

I’m still wondering whether collaboration is a skill or instinct but Tonya Surman adds something important to the discussion in this piece about a seldom discussed truth: that successful collaborations are always founded, at least partially, on self-interest. (With Creative Trust, the founding steering committee was crystal clear about potential benefits to the community, but we were also aware that each of our companies would benefit in ways that wouldn’t be possible without a collaborative approach.)

It’s important to understand what motivates us as people and what leads others to act, when we’re working to shift culture and systems.

Here’s a piece on A Collaboration Workbook: How Six Brooklyn cultural Institutions Developed a Capacity to Diagnose Community Need and Respond with Collaborative Programs, prepared by Alan Brown, Karen Tingley and John Shibley for Heart of Brooklyn. “Over the two-year period from 2011 to 2013, the six Heart of Brooklyn (HOB) cultural institutions (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Public Library, Prospect Park Alliance and Prospect Park Zoo) designed, pilot tested, and evaluated a process for conceiving and implementing collaborative programs that address community needs.” The workbook “distills what was learned, in hopes of advancing the field’s understanding of how cultural institutions that share the same community can find common ground and build an organic and robust approach to collaboration.”

Approaches developed during the project include:

  • Organizing for collaboration, and the question of leadership;
  • A public value audit to find areas of common ground regarding stakeholders and programmatic resources between multiple organizations;
  • Community research that allow partners to learn directly from specific interest groups in the community;
  • Idea generation, the process of synthesizing data and proposing creative solutions to problems, and then prioritizing those ideas;
  • Moving potential collaborative ideas through a “product development funnel,” resulting in better ideas to which all of the collaborating organizations are more committed.

The report also discusses the pros and cons of having a central “backbone organization” to support collaboration (e.g., Heart of Brooklyn), versus distributing responsibility for collaboration across the partner organizations.  (All work products are described in the workbook appendix, and may be downloaded from the BSCN website).

It’s definitely a “big organization” approach to collaboration, not much like my coffee shop clusters who seem to have a more practical, get-it-done attitude.

Obviously we should all remember that among the types of people who get on everyone’s nerves in nonprofit organizations are “people who suck at being team players. They’re all like “Meh, that’s not in my work plan” or like “sorry, I can’t help you clean up after our organization’s giant event because I made other plans.” We’re warned, ominously, that “A day will come when you think you are safe and happy, and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth. And you will know the debt is paid.” (one of “10 Game of Thrones quotes you can use at work”).

And yet…I just heard one of Canada’s most beloved and respected playwrights say, when asked about collective projects, “We’re all humans and we want what we want.”

I guess this brings us back to Tonya’s point about self-interest: unless people see it and feel it, collaboration doesn’t really work all that well (perhaps not even after a public value audit has been conducted.)


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