I have sat in numerous collectives, coalitions, and partnership-based initiatives for many years. And while I have seen the great benefits of collaboration work, I also cringed at some of the dysfunction manifested in the name of collaboration. Here are some of the few observations around collaboration that show how conflicting motives can hijack its value.
· Some collectives are not collaboration at all. Some are pseudo-collaborations when they appear in the guise of collaboration but are not. Partnerships that are by nature tactical, one-off, short-term do not have to be labeled collaboration. It is a mere partnership for a specific set of projects, initiatives, and agenda. Collaboration focuses on long-term strategic objectives that no one organization can boast to overcome or solve. For example, eradicating poverty, homelessness, etc.
· For one, when collaboration leads to co-dependencies between organizations, using collaboration partners to fill their capacity deficits and further discourage the organization from actually investing on specific organizational and technical capacity-building because they can get it ‘free’ through collaboration. It sounds pernicious, but this practice is very common. For example, the convenor will set up a research collective in the hope that the agenda, framework, and technical skills-set drawn from the group-those thing that they lack and cannot do on their own.
· When the convenor abdicates on its responsibilities to the whole group and delegates all the decision making, it makes the group more responsible than they should be. For example, a convenor who is legally responsible for setting the collaboration, having funding to administer and support it, abdicates its leadership role to the Chair, Vice Chair or certain organizations to decide on issues related to its functions.
· The role of the convenor is very tricky. The people in the group look to the convenor for guidance, inspiration, and smooth administration, as well as leadership. When there is no leader or sets of leaders in the group performing complementary functions, it begets the question: who is calling the shots here? How can the decision-makers contain risks in their decision-making?
· Supposedly the risks are shared equally by the whole group, but in fact, risks are shared by those who get to do more work for the group. Leaving some to do less while the rest of the group do more than what they bargained for. Studies show that the larger the group, slackers tend to arise and create more work for others.
· There seems to be no clarity why organizations and individuals are sitting on these groups and committees regarding their motivation and ‘what’s in it for them?” It is very rare when people get honest about it. Is it to get more funding? More prestige? Getting capacity when there is none in your organization? Is it for a good reputation? Is it because it aligns to your organizations’ purpose? Is it because you get more than you put in? Is it because it is easy to sit in without having more responsibilities? Being honest and candid about what you want out of these collaborations will give you an assessment in whether or not it is the right fit for your interests and motivations. It also gives everyone on the table an idea how these interests align with the groups’ aims.
· Simply getting what you want and offering to help is not the answer. Collaboration is not just the sum of all efforts if everyone likes what is going on. Any time, partners can pull out and say “we are not part of this,” because it happens more than you think. The self-interest is too high on the agenda to make it work for the group. Sacrificing your own organization’s self-interest for the collective common good may create a little discomfort or moderate pain as part of the equation, not a lot are prepared or have contemplated this. Ask yourself is being part of the collective enhances your ability to forge common agenda and interests or in short-term merely responding to your needs.
These and many more have become perplexing dilemmas. When everyone extols the values of collaboration, the practice of collaboration is nowhere near as impact-full and effectiveness as it should be. And everybody wonders why.
A few self-assessment questions will get you thinking about your role in the collaboration framework.
1. Have you clarified, explained, and demonstrated your motivation, interests, and organizational aims as part of the group?
2. Have you expressed the opinions, perspectives, and challenges that you face as part of the collective and understood each partner’s interests and motivations?
3. Have you benefited more than what you are intending to gain as part of the group or vice-versa ( meaning put more than what you expected to contribute?)
4. Have you contributed to advancing the collective good which you would not directly benefit as an organization but committed to doing it anyway?
Let us analyze; if you answer 4 out of 4, then it means that you understand the importance of honesty, candor, and exhibiting a certain level of vulnerability to achieve common goals, that at some point, will cause discomfort or pain to your organization. If you answer yes to 2-3 questions, you have a certain level of understanding of your role but not taking a proactive stance to the issues you are facing as part of the group. If you answer yes to 1, there is a great room to improve in your standing and perception of how collaboration works, gravitating on passivity, dependency, or confusion within your role in the group and vice versa.
Unraveling these issues is the start of empowering your position within a collaboration framework. It does not mean that you will not fail, it means that you can go back up again and revisit those thorny issues that get in the way of effective teaming up for success. The right frame of mind, expectations, and contributing attitude can set your organization up for greater collective impact.
We have a friend that is bemoaning his fate. Wanting to go to medical school, he was discouraged by the quota system that favored more women than men and ethnic minorities than from Caucasian background.
Well, for one, you can’t blame the ethnic minorities who are immigrants for this treatment. They came without no network, no recognized credentials, no language skills, no schools or professors that can support them, no neighbors, no coaches, no extended relatives, no government subsidies, not a lot of friends in high places, literally not a lot. But they are doing their best to get the education, jobs, and lifestyle they want in Canada proving that they can make it here in their new country. If you think this is unfair, it wasn’t a level playing field, to begin with.
This excuse cannot fly in the midst of a lot of successful people that went on to medical school and got their degrees and become full-fledged doctors! The quota system, the high tuition fees, the grueling apprenticeship, and the initial practice can break your resolve, but there is no such thing as get-successful quick.
I say it to young people. If the doors are not open for you, try the door at the back. Try the next door that is open. Try the door on the side. Try different ways to get into the building. It can take time, but with creativity, planning, and lots of support, you can figure out a way to get connected, one door at a time.
A few years ago, I learned about Open Book Management and its wonderful benefits to organizations no matter the size, industry, and complexity.
If you google it, Wikipedia will say that the basis of open-book management is that the information received by employees should not only help them do their jobs effectively, but help them understand how the company is doing as a whole.
According to Case, "a company performs best when its people see themselves as partners in the business rather than as hired hands" (Case,1998 as cited in Pascarella, 1998). The technique is to give employees all relevant financial information about the company so they can make better decisions as workers. This information includes, but is not limited to, revenue, profit, cost of goods, cash flow and expenses.
In July, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawn Plummer, the President/CEO of Food for the Hungry Canada based out of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia. FH Canada is one of the rare nonprofits that had tried and successfully benefited from the open book approach. It drove accountability, clarity, strategic focus, and innovation into their organization.
The transcript below is from Shawn’s own words describing their journey.
About FH Canada
FH Canada is a part of the global organization where the Canadian office is one of the affiliates. FH Canada operates in 8 countries: Cambodia, Bangladesh, Haiti, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda.
FH Canada aims to graduate communities out of poverty one community at a time. We operate with an asset-based management approach, exploring what assets exist in the community and together, with local community leaders and families, determine where the gaps are. 95% are national staff with very few expats.
As for our strategy, community-owned development plans are set by local leaders. As for our exit strategy, within 10 years, if we collectively feel that the vision and targets have been reached and a sustainable plan is in place, we will exit from the community and celebrate together at the time of “graduation”. There is a commitment to mutual transformation between the communities being served and the Canadian partners (whether churches, investors, business partners, and other supporting partners).
I was hired in 2010 to work on partnership development, for 8 years in fundraising, donor relations, and child sponsor acquisition. I became the President/CEO in late 2017.
There were some issues in the organization back in 2010 that needed to be addressed.
We lacked a strong brand so the whole practice of evaluating who we are, who is our audience, who is our market in Canada was stemming from that weakness. Ben Hoogendorn, the former President thought of hiring an executive coach to help our senior leadership team implement the Rockefeller Habits and then his successor, Bernie Willock, initiated the open book management process. This was sold to the Board and then changes slowly happened.
Origins of Open Book Management for FH Canada
Before, our strategic plan was for 3 years and 15 pages long that no one read. The coach guided us through a process that proved to be beneficial. There were two books that provided the inspiration: 1) Scaling up: practicing the Rockefeller Habits by Vernie Harnish, and 2) The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack. Scaling Up provided the 4 strategic elements: people, strategy, execution, and cash.
The result was a one-page Strategic Plan. It has driven clarity, focus and being able to say No! to a lot of things that do not align with the plan.
Bernie took on and implemented the open data management process because he had been doing that in his company before joining FH Canada. Before, only a few people were looking at the numbers. The rest of our leadership team weren’t always clear as to our annual targets, how to effectively monitor/track them, and that included cash management.
Our meeting rhythms have changed too. At the start of each month we set monthly projections for revenue and expenses. Each member of our team has a budget and expense line to watch. We analyze our Profit & Loss (P&L) weekly so we have a good idea where our cash is at when we look at our month end actuals.
The cultural shift was having a staff name beside each revenue and expense line and adding a layer of accountability. Being responsible for monitoring the numbers and knowing why those numbers rise or fall is another thing so we look at trends. Now, staff have a voice at the table and can challenge the expenses or challenge the return on investment when we’re considering new opportunities.
We started having fun keeping score and we’ve made huge progress as a team over the past 3 years.!
Results /impact in the field and your partners/stakeholders
the results are clear: One of our big goals is to always increase the % that we can get to the field in the 8 countries that we partner with.
There is a huge improvement in knowing where our cash is going and watching the number closely, anticipating needs and planning for contingencies.
This involves greater clarity, focus, and has improved our communication and service to our partners. Our partners are very involved in the process. There are more frank discussions about monitoring and evaluation because we know where we are at.
I thought we could roll out open book management much quicker than we did but we needed training in the beginning and it took us over a year to get things integrated.
It was a big cultural shift-having your name with a revenue target + expense line and it was daunting in the beginning. First, it felt like a competition but later one, it drove us to be better teammates. It made us look to where the growth opportunities are.
FH Canada have brought more partnerships-more accountability, greater clarity and focus and a clear BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal) of graduating 150 communities out of poverty by 2029.
How can you encourage other nonprofits to be more open and accountable?
I would encourage them to read the two books that influenced our current business practices.
Consider using an executive coach to help build a strategic plan for your organization.
They need to operate as a business - people, strategy, execution, cash. There is reason enough to do this because of the distrust between nonprofits and business.
It was painful in the beginning but it reaped many dividends. Once employees understood, they can make predictions and they can bring questions and answers to the management team. Other nonprofits can see this as an investment worth their time and energy.
Nonprofits have to have a motivated CEO and management team plus a supportive board that encourages this type of intentional strategic planning. There has to be a deep desire for change within the organization and a willingness to do the hard work to get to a place of sustainability.
I married a farmer. I have no idea about farming three years ago, but now, I can apply almost most of the farming lessons to management solutions and techniques that so-called gurus out there would envy!
1. You can’t hurry farming.
It has its seasons of planting, harvesting and in between all other supports that you do to ensure that the crops are growing healthy, not prone to diseases, pests, and other hazards.
You can’t hurry success, love, and business deals. They have their cycles and seasonality. To this end, you have to look at the long-term viability and ask yourself, will this give me a return of investment in the next 5, 10, 15 years.
2. There is no substitute for great weather.
While there are hail, storm, floods, pests, and other weather disasters that befall farming, with enough sunshine, wind, rain, harvesting is a delightful experience! My grandma has sat in a combine with my grandpa for more than 50 years until they can’t farm anymore! This is a tradition in farming communities. Young and old alike cherish this moment once a year.
You have to bring in the right amount of discipline, focus, persistence, and opportunism to every business opportunity. The batting average is 10% or less. The rest is part of growing up and being resilient to failures and momentary setbacks. Celebrate all the milestones and happy events dutifully.
3. Negative self-talk doesn’t work.
There is too much on the line when they have not completed harvest yet. Any delay could mean a rotting unproductive, unsellable yield. Farmers are stressed out to the core. Negative self-talk in a pressure cooker environment will only yield to more negativity to the already volatile and stressful situation. It drains away those precious energies you need to tackle problems with level-headedness.
Instead of negative self-talk, be positive about the situation. Leave your rose-colored glasses, be realistic, and get to Plan B, C, or D. The moment you build contingencies to your decision-making, understand the risks factors, you will feel more confident to take the next action.
4. Farming is all about inputs, not anymore!
For the last 100 years, we saw great revolutions in the agricultural sector. In the last 20 years, there are more technologies and innovation in the industry that you can imagine. Newer editions of expensive tractors, rising price of arable land, and the stringent policies on quota system have discouraged a lot of people from farming. The cost of fuel, fertilizers, and other support inputs have become cost-prohibitive. More and more farmers are grouping their farms to the community to benefit from scale and leverage pooled resources.
What are you doing in your business to adapt to a changing environment? You didn’t need horses when the tractors came along. So this is true for other industries where changing practices, technology, and priorities have shifted consumer demand to other services, products, and techniques. Is your industry being driven away by cut-throat competition, stiffer regulations, or dying consumer attention? It is time to know what is hitting you before it is too late.
I was bumped off from the list of speakers today.
Apparently, I was playing catch with the coordinator who is running the planning for the program. She was away for the while somebody had taken over and finalized all the details without me being aware of these changes.
Nevertheless, they want me to come and attend.
I am not going if I’m not dancing and just made to sit, listen, and act smart.
There are some things you cannot do if it means not participating in a way that works for you.
I have more things to do than that.
Cheap airlines are getting better and better.
Newer offerings in new routes. More options to choose from such as print your own tickets, online check-in, are getting better as well.
This is very good for fliers whose budget cannot afford the amenities and the frills of the regular airlines.
The key here is providing value to the point that customers are eager to try on without sacrificing a lot of dollars for the whole experience. The safety, comfort, and overall no-frills experience are what counts at the end of the day. Beware, if you do not read the fine print, you get charge for every little thing. Little thing that we take for granted but adds costs to the operations.
When did you start to think about your organization's value addition to your customers? Is it the price, comfort, peace of mind, guarantees, "the relationship," or the expertise your provide? or how about the lethal combination of these musts.
In these days, standing out in the market is not being the loudest or the most noisy product or service. It is about the filling the gaps, combining the best value for your offer, and ensuring a follow-through of a great experience.