Collaboration and Cultivating Collective Will

February 20, 2014 4 Comments


This post is a continuation of yesterday’s entry.  It is an edited email exchange between Alison Gold of Living Cities, Chris Thompson of The Fund for our Economic Future, and myself.  The point of departure was a question about what it takes to teach people to collaborate, and took us to a thinking about what it takes to cultivate the will to collaborate, beyond skill and having the right attitude . . . 

On January 23, 2014 9:17 AM, Alison Gold wrote:

All of this begs the question, how do you know when the will is there?  Or isn’t?  We seem to keep getting back to this point …

On Jan 23, 2014 at 9:27 AM, Curtis Ogden wrote:

I think that will can come down to two basic factors – having a strong “internal locus of control,” guided by and balanced with “external considering.”

A strong internal locus of control demonstrates some sense of responsibility and agency regarding one’s self and situation.  That is, we do not feel like we are total victims of circumstance, we don’t immediately default to blaming others (in word and deed).

Of course, this can be overdone, tipping into ego-centrism, which is where external considering comes in. It is what Peter Drucker often preached in terms of “leading beyond the walls.”  It is a demonstrated sense of responsibility to and embeddedness in the next larger system of which one is apart, an understanding that the degree to which we are whole, it is in service of the next whole.  This is the reality of living systems; we earn our keep by being of value to the larger body/ecosystem.

I actually like the direction this conversation is heading, because I think developing indicators for this is akin to what I am talking about with some colleagues regarding measuring “network mindset” and being a “responsible human.”

On Jan 23, 2014 9:35 AM, Alison Gold wrote:

I’ve actually been playing around with an idea related to this at Living Cities.  Mine has been less about the individual, which I’m excited to learn more about and exchange ideas and ask questions about, but more about how you can get a community in a productive zone of urgency to take on a problem.

January 23, 2014 8:43 PM, Chris Thompson wrote:

I do want to chime in on two issues you’ve both raised.

Developing the skill, attitude and will of collaborative leaders is indeed critical. I am working with two community-based leadership programs on this very issue. Many communities have leadership programs that are designed to help existing/emerging civic, corporate, non-profit leaders expand their networks and enhance their understanding of key issues within their communities. Rarely do the programs work to enhance the leadership development of the participants, and more rarely yet do they work on the skill, attitude and will issues Curtis raises. If our communities are going to enhance their ability to address the complex challenges and opportunities they face, we believe leadership programs should focus on promoting collaborative leadership skills and attitudes—which are significantly different from organizational leadership skills and attitudes.

I look forward to borrowing from Curtis as the two leadership programs I’m working with refine their thinking and shape their efforts, and if we’re successful we can embed those skills into Alison’s community-based approach.

And now to the issue of being a responsible human. The “will” for this work, as Curtis noted is rooted in “a worldview that helps us to viscerally understand how we are interconnected, why we must do the work together, how we suffer and can get in our own way when we do not.” This is a worldview that helps us be a responsible human.

This visceral understanding is what the great Aldo Leopold wrote about in his classic work on complex systems, ecology and man’s interaction with nature – A Sand County Almanac. I first read the book in high school biology and have reread it many times since but only relatively recently realized Aldo’s wisdom applies not only to man’s interaction with the complex ecosystem he lovingly called “the land,” but also the complex systems that I work in every day.

The visceral understanding Curtis is describing is what Aldo referred to as an “ethic.” His land ethic described man’s responsibility to cherish the land rather than consume it. Curtis is describing what I might call a “community ethic” or a “systems ethic.” Curtis’ world view, as Aldo writes, is “a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’… It evolves in the minds of a thinking community.”

Aldo also described a corollary to the “profit motive” that he called the “community motive.” While the profit motive isn’t a major driver within the civic/nonprofit space where we work it isn’t a huge stretch to say that the desire of individual nonprofits to attract funding for their “isolated impact” projects is similar to the individual corporation’s “profit motive.” Understanding that we can only achieve the sustained positive change we seek by working together shifts us toward a “community motive.”

To close, I will adapt one last Aldo quote. He wrote:

“Acts of conservation without the requisite desire and skills are futile. To create these desires and skills and the community motive is the task of education.”

 In our context, I’d modify to: “Acts of collaboration for collective impact without the requisite desire and skills are futile. To create these desires and skills and the community motive is the task of people like Alison, Curtis, Chris and all of the other advocates for sustained positive change in the communities we care about.”  

On Jan 24, 2014 11:09 AM, Alison Gold wrote:

Curtis, I’m really loving your frame on will-skill-attitude.  I feel like the work that I’ve been focusing on about cross-sector collaboration has been largely focused on skill with a bit of attitude.  In part, because my own experiences staffing collaborations, and my current organization which funds them, in some ways assumes that the “will” is there.  But, increasingly that assumption is the kicker.  It’s the difference between the collaborations that have impact, and ones that meet to meet (I love when Chris refers to this as coblaboration.)  And, here’s the thing, I have a lot of questions about the will piece and making it practical.

  • How do you know if will is present? Is it a Justice Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” thing?  And if so, could you share what you’ve seen that are some indicators of will (or lack thereof)?
  • And also, what do you do if the will isn’t present?  Can it be cultivated?  Or is an effort better off calling it quits?   If it can be cultivated, how have you or others gone about doing it?

Eager to hear your thoughts.

What do you think? How would you answer Alison’s questions? Share your thoughts with us at: Alison Gold @AKGold11, Chris Thompson @ccarsonthompson, Curtis Ogden @curtisogden, or leave a comment below.


  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks for this conversation. Here are a few thoughts to add…
    * External considering can look different for folks in marginalized vs. privileged communities. In both cases, the considering really needs to take power dynamics and historic patterns of inclusion, exclusion and oppression into account as well as more general “community ethic.”
    * “Community ethic” also can look very different in marginalized and privileged communities. I think that the challenge comes in getting folks’ sense of community ethic to transcend its typical or identity-based boundaries. Again, the work that folks in marginalized communities have to do in this regard is much different that folks in privileged communities.
    * Often, the will collaborate is challenging for folks in marginalized communities to take up because of what might be called “planning fatigue”– distrust in or disappointment with collaborative public engagement planning processes based on prior experiences where people who were deeply affected by the issues were either not involved, their input was not used or even taken seriously, communities were studied but plans were not developed, plans were developed but not implemented with fidelity or accountability, plans were actually implemented but had little impact or had adverse impact. Building collaborative will in the context of generations of these kinds of missteps and worse is challenging at best. It’s not for a lack of community ethic, but more for an abundance of evidence that participating does not always lead to positive outcomes.

    I welcome your thoughts on my thoughts !

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Thanks, Cynthia, for these important additions. I particularly like your points about the need to transcend typical/identity-based boundaries in communities of all kinds and that that work looks very different in differently situated communities. Like the saying goes, “If you’ve seen one community, you’ve seen one community.” And yes to putting power dynamics and patterns of inclusion, exclusion, and oppression up front.

      • christhompson says:

        Great points Cynthia. There is a lot of fatigue and disappointment in this work and those of us who champion those efforts need to honor that. Creating value for marginalized communities (and all stakeholders) should be the focus of collaborations. Crossing boundaries always comes with a cost; so there needs to be considerable value generated to make it worth one’s time to cross the boundary.

        • Alison Gold says:

          Great additions to the conversation Cynthia! I’d love to get your thoughts on how you’ve seen people do this well. In some of the collaborations I’m working with, I’m really seeing the struggle folks have to create space to speak about these things honestly, and others acknowledging them and not trying to justify or explain them away. Another of my big questions (in case I didn’t throw them out enough in the blog posts) is how do you create the conditions for collaborators to be able to do this?

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