Don't fear multi-stakeholder collaboration – do it better
Updated: May 5
Multi-stakeholder collaboration is an effective approach to systemic change addressing complex problems [see: Why multistakeholder policymaking works; Multi-stakeholder Partnerships Designed to Facilitate Immigrant Settlement and Integration in Canada; The Inter-agency Services Collaboration Project], yet many organizations shy away from cross-sectoral partnerships and alliances for fear of not being able to build consensus among different perspectives.
It’s not easy work, but given enough time, good leadership, facilitation, a backbone structure and alignment on values, the impact of such initiatives can be well worth the effort. When I was Director of Economic Development Programs at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, I managed two successful collaborative initiatives aimed at poverty reduction, and I witnessed positive outcomes in this area, including enhanced service offerings, organizational capacity building and increasing numbers of participants supported. In my current practice, I enjoy working in collaborative spaces and continue to offer advice and support to multi-stakeholder teams and tables.
A few weeks ago I enrolled in a 5-day intensive course on multi-stakeholder collaboration to expand my knowledge and learn about the latest thinking, frameworks and strategies that create impact. The course was led by Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes of Community at Work, a consulting firm and think tank that specializes in participatory approaches to system change. My thanks to Jerry Mings, The Desk Consulting Group Inc. and CANES Community Care who brought this team to Toronto and hosted the training session.
Here are 3 key takeaways from this session:
1. Collaborative literacy helps to move things forward. The lack of a shared language and framework for collaborative engagement is a limitation within this area of work. By day 4 of the training we all recognized the value of a shared understanding of good collaborative design and were able to speak the same language and apply conceptual frames – this deepened our conversations and analysis of our own cases. Taking the time to build mutual understanding within a multi-stakeholder team can go a long way in setting direction and moving decisions forward.
2. Empathy and supportive listening are keys to shared understanding. Sometimes the unspoken fear about convening multi-stakeholder groups is that people of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives may not be able to come to an agreement. Getting to a shared understanding of the problem that is respectful of everyone’s concerns is critical to innovation and problem solving. How can these collaborative spaces foster empathy and mutual understanding of each other’s perspectives? You build it into the design of the group conversations and dialogue. Talk about what it means to apply an empathetic lens and approach, incorporate supportive listening techniques, and let stakeholders practice these techniques with each other.
3. Consider Human Behaviour in Process and Strategic Design
Much of my work includes supporting the conditions for under-represented groups to meaningfully engage, and to voice their experiences and perspectives as they relate to program and policy issues. This course reminded me that process design must also factor in the human dimension, such as our willingness to change, change management and human behaviour. As you are planning for a collaborative meeting or event, think about how you want people to engage and feel during the meeting. What do you want them to learn, share and experience?
After taking this course, I walked away with new frameworks, models and tools related to designing collaborative strategies and a new network of practitioners that have also enhanced their collaborative literacy. The facilitators modelled supportive listening and were agile and responsive to the groups interest areas. The learning session had a nice balance of knowledge sharing, small and large group conversations, and hands-on thinking based on our own cases. Storytelling and case studies were used to bring the theories to life and, as learners, we were given the time and space to practice non-directive questioning, supportive listening and providing constructive feedback.
For those of you who want to delve deeper into this topic, the following books were recommended during the course:
Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, Sam Kaner with Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk and Duane Berger
Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough, Mark Friedman
Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, Richard Rumelt
When Talk Works, Deborah M. Kolb and Associates