Positive Impact Blog

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Courageous collaborations: how one plus one can be greater than two

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability.

Organizations have always been complex.   And in today’s world the enormity of our challenges calls for rethinking how our establishments operate.   In her March blog, Katrin discussed how structure and culture can equip an organization to address current and future challenges.   She argued that many may need an overhaul.  Her primary focus was on changing how the organizations function internally.   I propose that we should also consider how we relate to other organizations outside of our traditional boundaries.  I believe that collaboration across boundaries gives us the best chance of coming up with innovative solutions to at least some of our multifaceted conundrums.

Of course, organizations have varied perspectives with regard to most of our most pressing societal issues.  However, within the right conditions, those differences can enhance rather than detract from problem-solving.   When distinct groups band together to confront common problems, one-plus-one can equal more than two!

Recently I moderated a panel of corporate sustainability professionals as part of Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability graduate program.  The panelists all agreed that companies must take a leadership role in addressing sustainability challenges.  However, they also emphasized the need for cooperation and collaboration among a variety of players including universities, government and NGOs, to name a few.  Mark Weick, Director of Sustainability and Enterprise Risk Management at the Dow Chemical Company, stated that it is time for organizations to engage in “courageous collaboration” built on mutual trust.

Elements of Courageous Collaboration

The term “courageous collaboration” was first used by the national nonprofit, Center for Ethical Leadership.   They outlined the qualities foster courageous collaborations such as establishing trusting relationships, taking risks that matter, and being open to collective creativity.  Our corporate panelists would surely agree with these qualities. In our discussion they spoke to what they believe really makes a positive difference in their own alliances.

1. Reframe our views of “the other” as the enemy.

To build trust and work collaboratively, organizations must give up the all too prevalent tendencies to view “other” groups as the enemy.  For example, our panel discussed the long-held view that governments and corporations are adversaries.  A frequent assumption is that governments set regulations, corporations seek to work around them, and NGOs attempt to expose them.   The degree of accuracy in this assumption is unknown.  However what we do know is that in order to collaborate, many types of organizations must cooperate.   The recent Paris Climate Conference marked the first official recognition that the government cannot solve sustainability-related challenges alone. To succeed in establishing boundary-crossing collectives, organizations must view the others as trusted colleagues and acknowledge that all have a valuable role to play. Only within a trusting environment can collaborative groups achieve what cannot be accomplished alone.

2. Avoid acting solely in self-interest.

If we enter into a collaborative partnership in order to assure that our self-interests are achieved, we are violating the most important quality of courageous collaborations: trust.  For example, many times competitors within the same industry come together to address issues that could affect all.   When the members approach these collectives as a way to safeguard their own interests, or to ensure that they prevail over their competitors, creative approaches to shared concerns are unlikely to emerge.

3. Establish the rules of engagement

All organizations need some certainty in order to move forward smartly, according to Elizabeth Heider, Chief Sustainability Officer of Skanska USA.  She suggested that the varying partners in a collective are likely to have their own disparate rules.  Therefore, the members of the groups, whether representing corporations, government, NGOs, universities or any other organizational type, should establish a common rulebook and sincerely commit to it.

4. Develop a common language.

When the members of a collaborative group come together from dissimilar organizations representing different sectors, industries and countries, misunderstandings are likely.  Only when members work to understand the perspectives of the others and develop a common language can these confusions be avoided.  Heider said that when groups are talking about sustainability-related issues, shared metrics can enable clearer communications.  Courageous collaborators can avoid often dooming misunderstandings by taking the time to develop a common language.

Organizational boundaries aren’t what they once were.  To solve our many difficult challenges, we must all be willing to join with others with perspectives and knowledge different from our own.  However, the mere existence of a group committed to working together on common challenges isn’t enough to guarantee creative solutions.  If we truly want to achieve successes that exemplify how one plus one can be greater than two, we will need to rethink some of the assumptions that enable our comfort.  Instead we need to embrace the qualities that enable  courageous collaboration.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

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