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The Top Five Collaborative Trends Getting Traction

1 June 2017 at 8:25 am
Kerry Graham
Across Australia there are more than 75 initiatives using collaboration to achieve large-scale impact. While they all have their differences, Collaboration for Impact founder and director Kerry Graham has identified five trends that are getting traction in the space.

Kerry Graham | 1 June 2017 at 8:25 am


The Top Five Collaborative Trends Getting Traction
1 June 2017 at 8:25 am

Across Australia there are more than 75 initiatives using collaboration to achieve large-scale impact. While they all have their differences, Collaboration for Impact founder and director Kerry Graham has identified five trends that are getting traction in the space.

As an organisation that exists solely to develop the potential and practice of collaborations to achieve large-scale impact, we wanted to share our insights into what we are seeing emerging in Australia today around collaboration.

On conservative estimates, there are 75 places or issues across Australia using cross-sector collaboration to drive large-scale impact. By large scale, we mean the type of impact that changes outcomes for whole populations or generations by changing the underlying conditions, behaviours and relationships.

Some form of backbone infrastructure supports almost all of the 75 initiatives. That means they have people and/or resources to do the work of enabling collaboration: convening people, collecting data, facilitating learning, and coordinating action. The most common issue being focused on is improving the life outcomes of children and young people who are growing up in a place impacted by inequality or who are impacted by connected factors such as addiction, and poor employment and housing options.

Whilst responses in each initiative vary, our observations about the top five collaborative trends getting traction are:

  1. Everyone wants to collaborate but few want to change themselves

The case for collaborative responses to complex challenges has certainly been well made and heard, as evidenced by the 75 initiatives. However, we are seeing a great number grapple with what it actually means to collaborate.

People vehemently agree that we need to stop dropping pre-determined solutions into communities. That we need to move from fragmented to coordinated responses, we need to share data with each other, we need to stop being experts and start being learners together, and we need greater risk appetites for innovation. But  –  and there is a big but  –  as long as it doesn’t impact on them personally, or their organisation’s brand, strategy or business model. In other words, as long as it mean things don’t change too much and that they don’t have to change themselves. Being able to see yourself as being part of the system and therefore part of the problem is one of the toughest challenges we see.

  1. Are we ready to share power?

We see this reticence for change showing up most strongly when it comes to sharing power.

Putting it bluntly, collaboration is inherently about loss. Losing singular hero status in favour of impact you could never achieve alone (contribution instead of attribution). Giving up some competitive advantage (market share, brand awareness) in favour of pooled resources and leveraging brands and influence.

Letting go of being an expert (personal status) and getting into the messy dialogue of shared understanding. Moving out of the certainty and comfort of predictable program delivery (control) to the uncomfortable uncertainty of innovation and systems change.

All of this plays out through a lens of sharing power. People find sharing power uncomfortable. We don’t make power sharing explicit and therefore it doesn’t get the attention that is needed and goes underground. We don’t invest in skill development as that may require us to learn and acknowledge what we don’t know, which many perceive as having less authority.

Sharing power becomes most obvious and systemic when it comes to community engagement. The narrative and tools around community empowerment, development, leadership and engagement are pleasingly high at the moment.

Yet so few initiatives are putting beneficiaries in the centre of their work – meaning co-leadership and co-production.

The technical reasons are often cited – “we don’t really know how to do that”, “we’re not resourced to community engagement to that degree”, and “we don’t have the time”.

A more adaptive interpretation may be that people are fearful – understandably – of what it might mean. People don’t trust that citizens – those without formal institutional power – will know what to do and do the right thing.

Until we address this, our collaborative initiatives will not be as impactful or sustainable.

  1. Premature agenda setting

A symptom of lack of readiness to change or share power is a default response of rushing into setting an agenda for change without having focused on building the foundations for collaboration.

Commitment to collaborate from the usual suspects is not sufficient. Time and resources need to be invested in:

  • finding, supporting and convening diverse leaders from all parts of the system;
  • building trust, learning and a shared understanding of what it means to work in complexity and to collaborate;
  • deciding to establish new ways of working and challenge existing norms and ways of operating; and
  • building the urgency and authority of the collaborative change process.

Our advice: hold off jumping full steam into agenda setting until these preconditions are intentionally strengthened.

  1. The dominance and seduction of programmatic thinking

The most common consequence of setting shared agenda without creating the preconditions are shared agendas that won’t change the system and therefore miss the potential to create large-scale impact.

Without engagement from diverse stakeholders who all see the issue differently, an ability to think systemically and a willingness to change existing ways of working, these agendas often:

  • address or are focused on one part of the system – service provision;
  • seek largely to coordinate existing activity (eg service integration); and
  • use evidence as a way of avoiding taking risks – doing more of what we know works in a different context, rather than using evidence as a tool to explore and learn into innovation.
  1. The rise of collaborative practice is enabling change

The last trend to share is all positive. The existence of 75-plus collaborative initiatives has created some systems change in and of itself. We observe this in three ways:

  • The need for a backbone to enable collaboration is being valued. Funders and government institutions are releasing resources for this essential infrastructure.
  • Sharing data from multiple agencies is still very difficult but it is getting slightly easier. Governments are responding to data requests with more openness and speed and some great innovations around big data and data sharing are emerging.
  • The policy environment is shifting towards enabling place-based reform, devolving decision-making closer to communities, providing permission to innovate and using co-design – all of which are systemic enablers of collaboration and systems change.

And right out on the margins, they are some interesting discussions occurring around innovative finance model that support place-based reform and other collaborative responses.

If you are keen to learn more about the practice of collaboration and systems change in Australia, join us at the Collaboration for Impact Conference in Canberra on 17 to 19 July, where 15 communities, 10 practice leaders and 200 delegates will be sharing case studies, learnings, tools and insights on how to tackle big, tough problems and create large scale impact through collaboration.


About the author: Kerry Graham has worked in social change for more than 20 years. Her purpose is to evolve the way social change happens in Australia for the benefit of young people. She is a founder and director of Collaboration for Impact – Australia’s leading organisation for enabling people to tackling big, tough problems and create large scale impact through collaboration. She also lectures on collaborative practice with Centre for Social Impact at University of New South Wales. Prior to this Graham held executive roles within national not-for-profit organisations (Inspire Foundation CEO; Good Beginnings Australia, COO); and advised governments on social policy (Australian Social Inclusion Board, NSW Treasurer’s Advisory Body). She holds qualifications in public policy, law, social work and community management.

Kerry Graham  |  @ProBonoNews

Kerry Graham is a Director of Collaboration for Impact.

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