Collaboration for Sustainability 2: Framing

April 29, 2010 Leave a comment


|Photo by Peter Forbes||

“To work at this work alone is to fail.”

-Wendell Berry

Picking up from where I left off last Thursday . . .  How might collaboration be a key to making the sustainability shift?  At its best, collaboration is the act of modeling complex systems at work, and with awareness and intention comes critical adaptive capacity.   The goal is to achieve collective and distributed intelligence that can respond in timely ways to threats to sustainability (stressed ecosystems, injustice, etc.) and that can be proactive in creating optimal conditions for future generations to meet their needs.  That’s the ideal, right?  How do we get there?

The place we tend to begin at IISC when supporting people coming together to get something done is to initially frame the effort, to get clear on the context informing different actors’ perceptions of the issue(s) and to define a shared intention and value.  Without this foundation, it is difficult to get moving, or to get key systemic players moving together.  This is not simply a matter of creating a compelling case for action.  Research from conservation psychology suggests that it is important to help stakeholders create an overarching identity so that they feel like they are on the same team.  For example, an initiative that is framed as being purely about environmental protection may not draw the diverse stakeholders that something framed as being about “quality of place” would.  Are we trying to “protect fish” or ensure that we will be able to “fish forever”?

Furthermore, a key may be to bring stakeholders together as early as possible to spend time exploring this shared value proposition.   The process of doing this can break down many preconceptions, begin to build bonds of trust, and till the soil for new possibilities (as evidenced by the work of our friends and colleagues practicing Whole Thinking and Presencing).  Other research suggests that this can also address our individual failings with respect to risk assessment.  Studies conducted in Amsterdam show that when people set out to make decisions as a group, their conversations gravitated more to considerations of collective as well as delayed (long-term) benefits. Similarly, studies with farmers in Uganda indicate that when they listened to rainy season radio broadcasts in groups, rather than as individuals, they engaged in discussions that ultimately led to decisions that made better use of forecasts – collectively altering planting dates or using more drought resistant seeds.

In other words, there are indications that collaborative efforts, when launched with deep conversations about shared interest and identity, might build our capacity and inclination to think and act more long-term, that is more sustainably.  And of course there is much more to be said about the who and the how, which we’ll take up next week.  In the meantime, curious to hear your thoughts/experiences.

No Comments

  • gregorylent says:

    being in touch with infinity within one’s own awareness is the best way ..

  • Thanks Curits. Your piece reminded me again that it all starts with finding shared values and creating a common identify and intention. One of the models we use in thinking about this work presents a continuum: commnunication, participation, collaboration and integration. In what ways does this resonate with your work? Other considerations?

  • Kevin Doyle says:

    Hello Curtis and all…

    Thanks for generating this space. Would it be ok to use it as a call for advice and help on collaboration issues? Hope so. I’m currently working with several clients around coastal management issues, coral reef protection and clean energy/energy efficiency.

    In every case, two issues keep coming up. All advice is welcome.

    First, there is the issue of leadership. When there *is* a leader, it seems that results oriented productivity goes up, but true collaboration goes down as busy people agree to defer to the staff people at the lead organization. When there is *not* a leader, productivity goes down (sometimes way down), but collaborative conversations generate some astounding ideas for innovation and (as in your post) greater attention to common interests and long-term thinking.

    That doesn’t prove compelling enough to keep people coming back since their own institutional homes are already giving them enough to do. Collaborators start to drop out or show up in name only.

    Second, is the issue of money. In most of these collaborations, funds were not awarded to a coalition or collaborative. They were sent to a lead organization who talked a good game in a proposal about taking a collaborative approach with their “partners”. When push came to shove, however, the lead organization reverted to less collaborative approaches to assure that deadlines were met, original promises were kept, and so forth. One had a moment of crisis when it turned out that the “collaborators” wanted to change almost everything in the original proposal that had been funded. The funders said “no”, we want the original results promised.

    OK, that was *way, way* longer than I expected.

    Kevin Doyle

  • Dana says:

    I fully believe in collaboration to increase the development of ideas and the longevity of the business. And when people on a team think and act for the long-term they made much better business decisions to impact the success of the business.

  • Curtis says:


    Your model resonates and I especially like the addition of “integration.” We sometimes refer to the continuum – communication, cooperation/coordination, and collaboration. What I like about “integration” is that it suggests an internal shift for individuals involved in collaboration as well as the opportunity for collaboration to shift existing infrastructure and systemic arrangements – all key, from my perspective, to creating the worldviews and new structures/processes to support more sustainable ways of living. I’m not sure if that’s what you mean, and I am curious to hear more.

  • Curtis says:


    Wow, you describe something VERY familiar to us at IISC. One hope I have is that there are funders out there actively talking about how to fund networks, not just coalitions or collaboratives (another post is due and upcoming on the differences between these). What some foundations and other funders are recognizing is that their support can sometimes limit the promise held by collaborative efforts because they require certain kinds of centralization and structures that impede the power of more networked and distributed approaches to making change. Check out the website for the recent Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference in Pittsburgh or my recent post on that event to track some of the conversation about networks and philanthropy. The way we have tried to strike the balance between leadership that is too top-down and collaboration efforts with no direction is to create Steering Committees and Design Teams for collaborative efforts that make consensus decisions about both content and process matters. And we do plenty of capacity building with these teams so that they are hip to different modes of decision-making and even structural arrangements that may be called for depending upon circumstance. The problem we find is that people can tend to default to a certain mode (results-oriented, process or relationship-oriented) for ALL situations. That’s why it’s helpful to get teams with a mix of these natural proclivities. And I am interested in hearing others’ comments about your questions, as this is an ongoing challenge. You’re doing such important work!

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Along the lines of the post and the ensuing conversation, there was an interesting talk given by Sabine Marx from the Center for Research on Environmental Decision-Making (CRED) that highlights the importance of affiliation and shared identity in helping people to both subscribe to and be proactive around environmental sustainability initiatives. If you are interested check out the second half of the video on this link –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *