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Being Open to—and Strategic About—Collaborating with Partners: “Walking the CLA Talk” Part 4 of 6

Apr 17, 2017
Piers Bocock
Working Smarter: Everyday CLA techniques to help you be more productive

This blog post is part of a USAID Learning Lab series called Working Smarter: Everyday CLA techniques to help you be more productive. The goal of the series is to share practical ways to integrate collaborating, learning, and adapting into your work.

Piers Bocock is Chief of Party of the USAID LEARN contract.

If you’ve been following this blog series, you’ll know that I started a monthly process of reflecting on the six main components of USAID’s collaborating, learning and adapting (CLA) Framework. Over the course of the first three months of 2017, we looked at the LEARN contract’s experience with the enabling conditions necessary for sustainable collaborating, learning and adapting: Culture, Processes, and Resources (in the CLA Framework, this is the right-hand side of the graphic). In the next three blogs, we’ll turn our attention to LEARN’s approach to and experience with the left-hand side of the framework: CLA in the Program Cycle.

C is for Collaborating

Collaboration is the intentional action taken by two or more parties on a common effort, with the goal of reaching a result that would not have been possible alone. Good collaboration should be strategic; just meeting with more people doesn’t mean one is improving one’s collaboration. And collaboration doesn’t just mean more meetings, or meeting with more people, as Senior Learning Specialist Jessica Ziegler notes in our recent podcast. To be effective, collaboration must be strategic and synergistic. Key ingredients to good collaboration include:  

  1. Making sure that the right people are in the room, representing a broad array of opinions to which participants are open. More people does not necessarily mean better collaboration.
  2. Being clear about priorities and expectations. The purpose of the meeting and/or the larger goal of the collaboration needs to be clearly articulated.
  3. Focusing on on clear outcomes that are agreed to by all participants.  

One small way to try this approach is to establish an agenda for a meeting and state its purpose. If there isn’t a clear purpose, that meeting, team or organization just isn’t strategic. Then, explore what you can do to bring a more strategic approach to your collaboration.

But in this blog, I want to focus on one of the ugly realities of international development that everybody experiences but few are willing to discuss. For all the benevolent motivations that gets us into this work rather than becoming the high-paid consultants we could be in the private sector, we are really bad about collaborating with colleagues in other organizations. On one hand, it’s totally understandable: all of USAID’s “partners” are competing for the same work, and therefore don’t want to share information, funding, or credit for what they feel is “theirs.” On the other hand, if we stop and think about it for a moment, it’s completely ridiculous because we are all in the international development field to make the world a better place. (If that is not your primary motivation, then perhaps it’s time to take another look at those private-sector firms...)   

Let’s see if the following scenario sounds familiar. Nearly two years ago I was invited to a meeting convened by one of our USAID client offices. On the invitation list I saw a number of familiar names — Chiefs or Deputy Chiefs of Party or Project Directors from a number of USAID partners. Before the meeting, some of us did the usual handshakes and greetings with our colleagues, while a few others sat quietly observing, one perhaps even scowling. When the meeting kicked off, the USAID representative reminded us that we were there because in some form or fashion, we were all contributing to one of their goals, and they thought it would be a good idea to suggest once again that we talk about our priority activities and perhaps even consider sharing work plans with each other, so we could find areas for potential synergistic collaboration. During the meeting, everyone made nice noises and nodded their heads, and then afterwards, we sent our work plan to the USAID representative to share with the other partners. We’ve continued to do that with each 6-month work plan, but we’ve still not ever seen the full work plans of any other other participants. There are probably plenty of explanations as to why this is the case, but my hunch is that people on both the donor and partner side are still caught in the old knowledge-is-power and sharing-is-vulnerability paradigm. And when we’re not all in the same room in the presence of the client, the competition can be cutthroat, with so-called partners trying to angle in on each others’ work.

This is business as usual with USAID’s implementing partners, and something that USAID is trying to address in its updated Program Cycle guidance. But I have also seen this kind of competition and knowledge-hoarding with donors. I’ve seen it happen between teams in the same organization, I’ve seen it happen between different organizations theoretically working to support the same goals, and I’ve seen it between donors and their partners. This is an old, ineffective, and competition-based approach that not only doesn’t improve development outcomes, but actually gets in the way. It’s based on a scarcity mentality in which individual and organizational knowledge is power, and supersedes any larger direction toward a shared goal.

The other major challenge to effective collaboration that we see is a lack of openness to new or divergent ideas, in favor of sectoral “expertise” or years of experience. I have seen this when donors or implementers go into countries with solutions that may have worked elsewhere and try to implement them without really getting input from (or being open to) those who actually understand the local context. I have also seen this dynamic on teams. When we first kicked off the LEARN contract, I saw the familiar head nods when I laid out a vision for our work, but I also sensed that there were some questions. But nobody spoke up. So I had to actually tell my team that (a) just because I had more work experience than them didn’t mean I thought I knew best; (b) that I was open to dissenting opinions (provided a practical alternative suggestion was made); and (c) I believed that our team’s overall results were more important than any one individual’s accomplishments. Egos need to be checked at the door if one is truly open-minded to others’ ideas—another key to good collaboration. (There is often a direct connection with the degree of openness to collaboration of individuals and/or their organizational dynamics, which is why Culture is one of the foundational components of the Enabling Conditions for effective CLA; see the January blog for more on this.)  

When we established the LEARN team’s values and operating principles, we had to become aware of this competitive approach that just seems ingrained in the development sector, and intentionally decide to do things differently, even if it meant discomfort. But we weren’t doing it alone: USAID’s CLA team was instrumental in trying to promote a one-team, cross-contract approach to supporting the work of USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning (PPL). It hasn’t been easy or swift, and old dynamics sometimes persist. However, I can report that the way we collaborate with USAID’s CLA team is different from anything I have experienced previously. And this is true because we learned from bumps along the way, were open to having difficult conversations, and took time to build trust. We have also had to learn to check our personal egos at the door in the interest of the greater good.

Again, this is not easy, and it takes time to build the level of trust required for true collaboration. I’d be interested to read your examples of how collaboration has worked for you and what you found to be the keys or barriers to success. From our experience, here are a few:

Barriers to success:

  1. Scarcity mentality. “There is only a finite amount of funding or work or attention to go around, so we should only collaborate as much as we need to to get a leg up on our competition, and continue to fight like hell to get our piece.”
  2. Egos and power dynamics. “I have more experience than you.” “I have seen this work elsewhere and you haven’t.” “I’m the donor/director/expert and you’re not.”    
  3. The trap of “proven” or “best” practices. “We’ve always done it this way.” “We know the solution, and there’s only one.” “Besides, it’s how everyone else operates.”

Don’t get me wrong: these are legitimate and natural instincts that have been part of the foundation of service provision since the beginning of time. And they most certainly apply when profit is the bottom line. But when profit is not the bottom line, and improving the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people is, perhaps we should revisit our foundational principles around collaboration. I can tell you that the LEARN contract gets far more work by simply providing quality services that meet client needs and letting them talk about our work than we would if we were out selling ourselves or prioritizing “winning” new work over delivering on current objectives. In fact, we are in the enviable position of turning work down, and being able to recommend other partners as potential providers. To me, this is one of the fruits of effective collaboration. The other? It builds trust. So how does one step into this new paradigm? Here are a few keys that we try to apply:

Keys to success:

  1. Service mentality. The point of collaboration isn’t to get our piece of the pie; it’s to play a role in making some sort of positive change.
  2. Team orientation. We succeed together, or we learn together. Nobody gets thrown under the bus, and nobody is the superstar. Our success is defined by outcomes bigger than ourselves or what we could do alone. Celebrate and acknowledge the successes of our partners as well as our own.
  3. Open-mindedness. Let’s start with a shared understanding of the goal, see what has worked (and what has not) in the past, and make sure we get people with both technical and local context expertise. Let’s be open to new, alternative, creative ideas when possible. And let’s test and iterate as we go, learning and adapting as needed.
  4. Focus on the coalition of the willing and don’t worry about the others. Sometimes, people just don’t really want to collaborate; that’s fine -- just don’t waste your time on them. Focus instead on those who understand that good collaboration can be a win-win; others will notice, and will align with your approach.

If this sounds impossible, I just suggest you start with keeping an open mind and testing it out in small ways, perhaps on your immediate team first.

As always, we appreciate your comments, feedback, and any shared experiences you may have related to this blog. Next month we will look at how the LEARN team is leveraging its own ongoing learning to refine our approach.