Creating a collaborative field

The world has changed. Collaboration is high on the Agenda 2030 and a cornerstone for implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. One aspect is clear: multi-stakeholder collaboration between business, NGOs, government, the UN and communities will be essential to achieve the goals and they will be needed at a scale and quality that dwarfs current levels of collaboration.

This is a heavy demand to place. The process of collaboration is often slow, with different levels of understanding around what it means to enter into a multi-stakeholder collaboration process. This leads to high transaction costs, meager results and unfulfilled expectations. Collaboration across sectors with different interests, motivations, cultures and timescales is challenging.

If you are about to initiate a complex multi-stakeholder initiative, or supporting one to deliver results, consider the following image:

See stakeholder collaboration as a field much like a soccer field, with clear boundaries and a set of rules how to play in it. People in the field need to play together, define the rules together, stay in the collaborative field and – above all – should not play against each other in different goals, but shoot the ball into the same goal. Now, how to make this work?

There are 4 tasks everybody must do who wants to make multi-stakeholder collaboration work:

#1: Get actors into the collaborative field: this takes time and often you need to learn a lot about the different stakeholders, before you are able to approach each differently and in the way they feel acknowledged. You need to know the emotions, aspirations, conflicts, risks, business cases, dreams, benefits and doubts. Convincing is less successful than listening and inspiring.

#2: Keep actors in the collaborative field: this is most often neglected. Some people think, once people are in, they stay in. But this is not the case. If there is no clear strategy constantly negotiated, people will drop out. If there is no genuine care-taking of concerns and interests, people will withdraw. Lack of transparency and information makes them hesitant, unclear or unreliable processes make them upset. Maintaining the energy of a collaborative field is an effort often underestimated. Trust-building is a task never finished.

#3: Negotiate the boundary: this often comes as a surprise, as if the rules of who is in and who is out, once set, will remain forever. But this is not the case in a multi-stakeholder setting. There will be constant boundary challenges. Some stakeholders will want to draw the boundaries closer; others want them wider; again others may question them altogether. Alongside with the rules of the multi-stakeholder game, maintaining or adjusting boundaries is a continual challenge.

#4: Help people play into the same goal: this is often taken as self-evident, because the collaboration is all about a joined goal. But reality is different from collective dreams. The goals get lost or take the backstage when stakeholders begin to fight over procedures, structures, and rules. Putting the goal high on the agenda, pulling it back center stage, and creating an emotional connection with the goal is paramount. This includes a constant renegotiation of a common goals as multi-stakeholder initiatives move towards implementation.

You know that you are managing the collaborative field well, when there is an atmosphere of commitment that makes it impossible to completely misbehave despite differences in opinions and positions. People then intuitively know when the goal is at stake and they do not want to take the risk of making the collaboration effort fail. When people stay in the collaborative field despite occasional mistrust, negotiated progress and lived-through tensions – then you have done your job, The system of collaborating actors has matured.

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