Collaborative Leadership

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 8.23.22 PMAs an Organization Development consultant, I focus my practice on serving the leadership of organizations to effectively collaborate to affect change they would otherwise not be able to accomplish on their own. Having led my own consulting business for over nine years, I’m constantly working to develop my own leadership capacity so I’m better positioned to serve. As part of my graduate degree in organization development, I’ve worked hard over the last two years to build my own capacity as a collaborative leader.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 9.11.32 AMMy work to build my own leadership capacity builds upon previous programs I participated in: fellowships with Leadership New York, Leadership Southern California and the Los Angeles Social Venture Partners. Like the leadership programs, my graduate program used a cohort model. Working in smaller learning groups, each one of us in the program developed a set of goals to work on to develop ourselves professionally in an area of our own choosing. We proposed our goals to our learning group and gave each other feedback. Once developed, we supported each other to accomplish whatever we each set out to do (which for me included writing my masters thesis on managing collaborative change, which served as a foundation for an article later published by OD Practitioner.  (Pictured is my learning group after our first successful consulting project)

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 8.25.00 AMI based my development goals on one of the books that most influenced my own thinking about collaboration, Managing to Collaborate by Chris Huxham and Siv Vangen. This book pulls out six themes that a reflective practitioner managing collaboration needs to be aware of that exist in any collaborative space. Here’s a nice summary of the book I found online. These themes include the following:

Regarding power, Huxham and Vangen note three perspectives on power: power over (self gains), power to (mutual gains) and power for (transfer of power to another party/shared power). They note how power can be used at the macro level: formally acknowledged authority, power dynamics that shift over time and that different types of power may be relevant over time. On the micro-level, they observe how power is used in the daily life of a collaboration: who decides the name, membership, identity, invitation, bringing people together, meeting management, meeting agendas and format and meeting follow up. They note that “Those who manage, deliberately or otherwise, to access these points are in powerful positions at those moments to shape the future of the collaboration.” (p. 181). In order to manage power at the macro and micro level, a manager needs to be aware of what style is appropriate and have awareness for their own power in relation to others.

Huxham and Vangen propose a model for how trust can be enhanced in collaboration through a “trust building loop”. They note “Trust can be developed over time moving gradually towards initiatives where partners are willing to take greater risks because a high level of trust is present.” (p. 160) For the manager, “there is a need to assess the specifics of each collaborative situation with regard to the level of associated risk, level of trust existing between the partners and whether trust can be built incrementally via a small wins approach or whether a more rapid and comprehensive approach to trust development is required to pursue collaborative advantage.” (p. 161) In order to build trust, partners must be willing to take a risk. They continue, “Given the fragility of the trust loop, practitioners who wish to build and maintain a high degree of trust, need to pay relentless attention to trust building exercises.” (p. 171)

Huxham and Vangen use the term “aims” to describe the clarity of purpose uniting a collaboration, such as goals, objectives, vision and purpose. They note three levels of aims: “the level of the collaboration; the level of participating organizations; and the level of the participating individuals.” (p. 84). In addition, “External collaboration aims exist where the force for collaboration is from external pressures rather than from any of the members.” (p. 86) and “non-member individual aims exist where an individual has a strong stake or other interest in a collaboration even though they are not formally a part of it…A common source of non-member individual aims is partnership or alliance managers whose job it is to support the members.” (p. 87) In addition “process aims are commonly seen as a means of achieving substantive ends and, in that sense, they are usually perceived as subordinate to the substantive collaboration aims” (p. 90) “Hidden agendas are thus endemic in collaboration.” (p. 89) “There is a basic distinction between aims that are explicitly stated and those that are not.” (p. 92) “The boundaries between one category and another, however, often are blurred.” (p. 93). “Recognizing that there will always be a dynamic entanglement of aims, including many that will remain hidden, is fundamental to getting a grip on what motivates and constrains others, and indeed also on one’s own motivations and constraints.” (p. 101).

Huxham and Vangen are “concerned with the dynamics of the negotiation process” (376/924). They conceptualize this process as a series of episodes…likely to encompass a complex set of behaviors.” (109). “During an episode, the group members are engaged in dealing with a tension within the group deriving from an incompatibility amongst individual, organizational and group aim positions” (p. 110). They note various types of episodes that can occur: cohesive group episodes, disinterested organization episodes, outlying individual episodes, spying organization episodes, vetoing individual or vetoing organization episodes, threatened organization episodes, outlying organization episodes, powerful organization and pragmatic group episodes, skeptical group or skeptical individual episodes, imposed-upon organization and imposed-upon group episodes. Huxham notes “Being able to spot typical problematic situations quickly means being able to manage them responsibly.” (p. 121). They recommend ways in which managers can manage this tension, including turning a blind eye, excluding an organization, building trust, seeking an alternative representative, etc. “Engineering ‘right moments’ and facilitating group processes, perhaps through engaging an external facilitator, are, of course, parts of the act of managing (in order) to collaborate.” (p. 123).

Huxham and Vangen write “the ability of members to negotiate aims, build trust or manage power all rests in part on the way that they view each other.” (p. 187). They note that identity formation occurs in cycles: “Each party experiences and interprets the acts-including speech acts-of others and shifts (or reinforces) their sense of others’ identities and their sense of how they are being identified by others.” (p. 191). In addition, definition of what social categories members fall into add another layer of complexity to identify formation. Finally, how the collaboration is viewed by members not a part of it is also impacted by these cycles. “Much of this implicit process of identity formation seemed to be carried out in a gradual fashion by initiators and managers.” (p. 199).

Huxham and Vangen also share about Membership Dynamics. They note, “Managing stakeholders does not however tend to be straightforward. For example, stakeholders are not always easily identifiable and are rarely equally engaged with the collaborative concern, so it can be difficult to persuade them to become involved (Gray, 1985). Even if there is willingness to do so in principle there remains the issue of how to ensure good representation. Furthermore, if more than a few stakeholders are represented, logistical issues arise. Just ensuring effective communication can be a major managerial task and the problems of agreeing joint aims magnify.” (p. 125)

In addition to these themes, Huxham and Vangen write about leadership in collaboration: “our conceptualization is concerned with what ‘makes things happen’ in a collaboration.” (p. 202). “Structures thus play an important role because they determine such key factors as who may have an influence on shaping a partnership agenda, who may have power to act and what resources may be tapped.” (p. 205) “Given that collaborative structures play such an important role in shaping and implementing the direction of the partnership, it is significant that they are often note within the control of members of the collaboration.” (p. 205)

From Huxham and Vangen’s six themes, all of which interrelate to each other, I focused on four of these and developed a set of goals to work on, which included better understanding power dynamics, strengthening my negotiation skills, managing complex membership dynamics and build trusting relationships. I wanted to immerse myself in these themes in order to help me more effectively serve collaborative change initiatives as a consultant.

LinkedinSince I was reading enough books already for school, I designed my learning around two key activities: dialog with leaders I respect and journaling to reflect on my actions in these categories. I’m pleased to report I engaged in a dialog with 38 people throughout this process. These included people who I respect as collaborative leaders, professors from my program and friends who have known me a long time. Here is a Screen Shot 2013-07-08 at 11.36.05 AMsampling of folks I connected with include:

Altogether, I participated in 48 conversations that usually lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to one one-hour. As someone who learns through dialog, I found these conversations very helpful! I simultaneously journaled on a regular basis (a practice I’ve done regularly since high school). My journaling was more focused, looking into themes, mapping out ideas, reflecting on my actions and capturing notes from my conversations. I printed and bound my journal, which now sits on my desk. (the two images are from my journal as I explored mapping my networks)

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 8.23.22 PMBeing a visual learner, I also created a mandala on one piece of paper that showed the relationship between the themes I wanted to explore and how they related to different aspects of my life. This helped me focus and served as a good reminder that work on this project was an ongoing process. Throughout that process, I gained a number of insights. Here are a few exerts from my journal:

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 3.10.09 PMOn Power: “Leadership is about making choices, tough choices. Leadership is about making decisions, challenging decisions. Everyone has an agenda, and that’s ok. I have an agenda too. To lead is to lean into the tension, accept responsibility and accountability for using my own power to build community, to build a culture of care, creativity, love and belonging.”

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 3.09.54 PMOn Negotiation: “Negotiation is a process, just like facilitation. It’s a process of finding common ground… The insight I had for myself is that I usually have more options than I’m aware of. I make assumptions and lock myself into a limited number of choices, and none of them might be the right one….Some of this comes back to intention. What is my intention? If I don’t ask that question first, then I’m often not pleased with the results.”

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 3.10.13 PM
On Membership:
“Underneath membership is inclusion and exclusion. Inclusion can create community, a sense of the group. A feeling of belonging. Exclusion is the flip side of including. In order to create a community in a community, or a collaboration, you will likely need to exclude someone or some group at some point. This is tough, and potentially painful. Having the right people at the table in a collaboration can make or break the effort…I’m struck by the power of the invitation and Blue Team Venn Diagraminfluenced by Peter Block’s writing on community… With an invitation comes choice. My key insight is that if my yes really means a no, I need to say no instead…I learned that changes to membership are the norm, rather than the exception in collaboration…” (Diagram is something I drew to visualize a trans-organization network I participated in for a school project)

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 3.10.02 PMOn Trust: “Trust is an essential ingredient for collaboration. The flip side of trust is risk. With risk, comes vulnerability. Vulnerability, when commitments are made and followed through, build trust. It’s a cycle. If I feel resistance to someone, I can ask myself, do I trust them? If the answer Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 3.06.15 PMis no, I can take a small step to build trust, rather than just resist. In order to do this, I will likely need to trust myself to lead….” (image is notes I took on a conversation discussing trust)

I will close by saying I continue to be very interested in exploring these themes, especially in my role as an Organization Development consulting serving collaborative change initiatives.

About Ron Milam

Ron Milam, MSOD, works to transform the Pacific Coast into a sustainable region through leadership and organization development for collaborative change initiatives. Since 2005, Ron has served over 150 clients as an organization and network development practitioner.
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