Making the world a better place is simply difficult. Transformation happens over a time horizon that many of us lose sight of and we rush to achieve our outcomes. There is a better way if we approach action together and with the right preparation. In my work on sustainable food and agriculture, I have seen collaboration run stagnant. I have also seen the results of a more comprehensive approach to partnership that respects preparation and adaptive management. It is this approach that I argue is the key to our successful future.
Lessons from Sumatra
Take my visit to the coffee-growing community of Simalungun in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia. I was there to monitor climate adaptation training for a collaboration of partners seeking climate solutions for the coffee industry. Having attempted various farmer survey methods in the past, I decided to prioritize face-to-face meetings with the farmer(s) and their families, facilitating a deeper conversation and discussion. Thanks to the relationships built between my local partner organizations and the farmer communities, the farmers had trust in me, and shared with me honestly about their experiences using our trainings. I spent hours with each family, sitting in their living rooms on tattered rugs, sipping coffee from their fields and furiously taking notes. I listened intently and asked few questions. For some it took a while to open up, but I noticed a more relaxed demeanor when they understood I was simply there to learn and respect their needs as a growing community.
It took me a short time to realize that these farmers’ knowledge ran way deeper than university models or desktop research upon which we based our methodology. I found that our donor dollars were being spent spinning our wheels on hypotheses and research questions when in reality our collaboration needed input from these farmers the most. We were far from achieving our goals and miles from the results we hoped for. My feedback to the collaborative team was that we must adjust our curriculum and tailor it to each farmer’s need. We simply had to listen. We needed a different vision and approach to collaboration.
Collaboration is so 2013
Collaboration is a word I am hearing a lot of within the sustainability space. This means actors in business, government and NGOs are willing and able to work together for the benefit of a joint mission or action brokered by governments, community leaders and NGOs. Some approaches, however, are not always built on honesty, trust and integrity. Under an ideal collaborative scenario, the roles, responsibilities, needs and perceptions of each actor are made clear before a partnership is formed, thus ensuring greater efficiency and productivity in the collaborative work. Additionally, knowledge share must remain simple and beneficial for both sides early and often.
In my case, I took my lessons learned from Indonesia back home and proceeded to undertake the same listening exercise with my corporate partner. Similar work was done with our government partner and within our own organization. This process of ultimately including the farmer groups in our collaboration and engaging each partner independently made the development of the training curriculum more robust and more impactful for the farmer group.
So what can be done to make collaboration equally beneficial and ultimately more impactful? How do we move away from traditional one-sided communication into more of a closed-loop, collective feedback based approach?
The Power of Preparedness
I would argue that any combination of actors can and should work together if the outcome leads to greater social, environmental and economic impact. What is needed for effective collaboration is a process for stakeholder engagement and strategy development that is based on (1) preparedness, (2) critical listening, (3) role identification and (4) quality measurement.
1. Finding the right partnership and collaborative team is essential. Before committing, actors must take the time to understand their own priorities, develop goals and set an achievable. This should be facilitated by an unbiased stakeholder engagement leader.
2. Once each actor is clear of its own goals and outcomes, a process of group priority mapping must take place. This is critical to ensure each partner has similar goals, timetables and expectations. Alignment may not be perfect but if missions do not overlap, there is a large risk of imbalance and ultimately failure. Crucial here is listening to each other and ensuring a level of honesty and direct communication.
3. Niche identification and role assignment ensures a level of clarity and efficiency in the collaboration. Not every actor has the same strengths, and tasks must be distributed to ensure the appropriate use of resources and for effective delivery of outcomes.
4. Finally, no partnership, project or collaborative program is effective without the right measurement of progress, impact and adaptive management. This should take place on a regular basis and based on agreed methodology so all actors are prepared to make adjustments where and when necessary.
Consistent throughout is the right preparation and consistent communication. That and a central organization or leader to guide the collaborative group down the path of strategy development. Taking my experience in Simalungun for example, my time was better spent one-on-one with the farmers rather than in a workshop or facilitated setting. Relationships built on this direct dialogue allow for more frequent touch points and recalibrating. For our team, we realized our impact would take longer in the end, but we recognized the value of its ultimate strength.