Blessings of Collaboration

The candles I’d put in the Chanukah menorah fell over. The large Sikh leader – broad, tall, flowing white clothes and silver beard – and the diminutive Buddhist nun – small, dark robed, shaved head – leapt forward together to catch the candles. The Sikh and the Buddhist quickly placed the candles back in the menorah, so that the nice Jewish lady could light them. She then lit the candles and said the prayers, up at the front of the Methodist church, in front of over 300 people from at least eight different faith communities.

[Photo by Nils Peterson, used with permission of Interfaith Action of Evanston.  Full set of event photos available on Facebook.]

That’s how my holiday season began, at an interfaith service the night before Thanksgiving.  I witnessed a spontaneous act of collaboration.  Nobody told those folks to help each other.  No incentive system was in place to reward collaboration.  No calculations were involved. Just an instantaneous, instinctive act of mutual support.

That sets the bar pretty high for many of us.  Often we struggle with raising the level of collaboration in our own organizations.  There are a few obvious challenges:

  • Most of our organizations are built on competition (and with good reasons)
  • While many of our organizations talk about values, few are as rooted in their values as the communities represented that night (and fewer still have selflessness as one of their corporate core values)
  • Most of us work for a living, our living depends on how well performance and behavior match incentives, and incentives are usually tied to outcomes

Even so, there may be a useful lesson.  The kind of instinctive collaboration I saw that night is about culture and values.  The right incentives can help reinforce collaboration. The wrong ones can certainly get in the way. True collaboration, though, doesn’t come from a begrudging calculation of self-interest, or from your fears that you might fail.  It comes from your genuine hope that the other person succeeds.  You could almost call it the Golden Rule of collaboration: collaborate with others as you would have them collaborate with you. Maybe we can find ways within our organizations – and beyond – to remember that this season and into the new year.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.] 

Public ends, private means

Affordable student housing in a 12th century convent in Venice.  A food truck collaborative in a gritty Boston suburb.  Mobile-phone charging stations in Burkina Faso. This is sustainable development?

Yes.  This is exactly the frontier where new models for sustainable development are being created: unconventional, innovative projects to achieve public ends through private means.

These models come from optimism but also from frustration. The optimism reflects the belief that new things are worth trying. The frustration reflects the experience many have had trying to work around the limits of conventional models, including:

  • Private sector, especially the corporate world.  Society expects more and more from businesses.  But good intentions can be ground down by the complexities of fiduciary responsibilities and quarterly earning pressures. Investment is stranded in old business models – and even older organizational cultures.  We’ve seen good progress and sometimes great innovation from business, but the limits are real.
  • Public sector, in both the developed and developing worlds.  Even the world’s oldest democracies are seeing stalemate rather than statesmanship in addressing their biggest challenges. We’ve had to put hopes for public policy solutions off to the side; almost a sequestration of expectations.  At this point, we expect so much from business precisely because we expect so little from government.
  • Philanthropy and foundations.  They do great work, but they are often not in for the long haul.  They can be enormously helpful at getting something started.  Providing dependable, year-on-year baseline funding seldom fits their business model, though.  That makes sense – but only if what they help start has some other form of funding to remain viable.
  • Civil society and non-profits.  Many do amazing hands-on work to fill the urgent gaps, including feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. That work requires ingenuity to stretch scarce resources every day.  There is no surplus to invest in new models, not when that can be done only by taking food off the table at the soup kitchen.

All these sectors and models play needed roles but all have their limits.

Now we’re seeing fascinating work on creating and testing new models.  (In full disclosure, I should point out that some of this work is being done by my greatest mentors, intellectual partners and friends.)  This work is building unconventional approaches to:

  • Harness private means including capital, spirit, management rigor, creativity;
  • For public ends including interconnected concerns around economic development, jobs, environmental sustainability, housing, energy, diversity, transportation and education;
  • In financially-sustainable ways, breaking the dependency on undependable foundations, grants, government agencies.

One might almost call this nexus… truly sustainable development.  At the very least, it’s putting back in the missing “economic” piece in the sustainability “triple bottom line”.

What does this look like in practice?  There are lots of initiatives including micro-credit, transportation, energy financing and other areas. Three striking examples of different models can be seen in:

  • The Crociferi development in Venice, providing affordable student and faculty housing built on a base of a 12th century convent and tourism spending.   (The facility opened just a few months ago with publicly funded property investment and privately funded management.)
  • Projects around the world sponsored by the Low Carbon Enterprise Fund (a program of the ERM Foundation).  The Fund’s projects “provide finance and pro-bono technical and management support for low carbon entrepreneurs in the developing world”, ranging from fuel-efficient stoves in India to carbon-neutral, shade grown coffee in Latin America and Ethiopia.
  • A new project in Malden, Massachusetts aiming at local business development for immigrant communities based on co-creating development rather than providing arms-length financing.

The people deeply involved in these experiments are asking tough questions themselves.  Isn’t each project its own “special case” and if so, how do we extract common lessons? Does sustainable financing depend on meeting both public and private ends? How do we scale up? How do we do enough to really matter when no one project is that large? Can we scale up without new forms of “hybrid capital?” Is “sustainable development” even the right label for all this, given how much economic impacts are overlooked in the sustainability world?

Where will this all go? I’m not sure.  Nor are the people driving these experiments.  I suspect it will be non-linear path, filled with twists and turns and setbacks and surprises both good and bad.  Then again, the people driving these experiments got where they are today on non-linear paths that ran through (among other things) railroads, economic development, boards of banks and consultancies, Native American crafts enterprises, and grass-roots political organizing. What the paths all have in common is a focus on broader pubic needs and experience in making things work in the private sector.  Maybe we should call it public yearning, private learning.

I’ll try to keep track of these experiments and share the lessons learned. (I’m already learning lessons just from the reading they’ve each suggested; see the mini-bibliography at the bottom of this blog.) I’m finding that these experiments are all about connection: connecting resources and needs, knowledge and challenges, opportunities and people willing to pursue them.  They are also about connection at a very personal level: reconnecting with old friends, connecting them with each other, and tapping the energy and creativity of much younger new friends being drawn in.  The path won’t be linear but it certainly will be interesting.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.] 

Mini-bibliography:

The Year of the Peer

This post is a “New Year’s Recognition,” not a New Year’s resolution. It recognizes the reality we face rather than making new promises we probably won’t keep.  (If you really want resolutions, check out the “New Year’s resolutions for sustainability and strategy professionals” I posted last year; personally, I’m still working on fulfilling those.)

The recognition: This is going to be the year of the peer.  This year, practical, sustainable progress will depend on our success in working with our peers, both inside and outside our companies. This is not a feel-good exhortation to “play nice with others.”  It is a strategic necessity.

Isn’t this always true? Why now more than ever?  Because this year, top-down, vertical solutions are going to be very hard to find.  If you’re waiting for the people above you to make decisions and sort things out, you’ll have a long year.

The people above us are going to be too busy to settle our problems this year.  They face another long year of financial and policy uncertainties, with no clarity in sight.  They have given up on getting clear decisions from their governments, even bad decisions. They are starting the year already exhausted and frustrated. The uncertainties are too great and the margins of error too small in this market. They have zero tolerance for sibling rivalry and avoidable conflicts. They need “win-win” outcomes, not trade-offs.

If we want to succeed, the burden is on us to get our results without relying on the people above us to deliver them. This can be a challenge. I got an indication of this in a small client event in November.  Eight EHS/Sustainability leaders spent a day sharing candid insights into their opportunities and challenges. From different companies and industries, they each had different stories to tell. When we mapped the flow of messages to and from them, they found they had one factor in common: some of their biggest challenges were in their horizontal relationships inside their companies.  I’ve seen the same pattern already in the first 10 days of 2013.  I’ve worked with three of my clients in depth – and all three have great opportunities this year that depend on collaboration with their colleagues (in sales, operations and capital projects), not mandates from above.

Perhaps we should all take a fresh look at our 2013 resolutions and consider adding:

  • Map the relationships we need, not just the ones we have
  • Create the conversations that will build those relationships
  • Understand what success looks like for our peers, and how we can help them succeed
  • Create the win-win solutions that deliver success both for us and our peers

Don’t stop up leading both up and down in your organization. But think about your peers too.

Note: With this blog, I have fulfilled one resolution — I’ve now kept “Practical, Sustainable Strategy” going for a full year.  There was a gap in posting in December, but I’ll claim that as following #10 from last year’s resolutions.  Thanks very much to all who’ve helped me keep this blog going and hopefully useful, including colleagues, family, those who’ve posted comments, and my web coach Jeff Gorham.  I’ll try to keep the site alive and more useful and interesting in 2013.  I’m looking at some new things including perhaps guest blogs from colleagues. All ideas for improvement are gratefully accepted!

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]