Three Tips for Overcoming Common Collaboration Conundrums
As 2018 comes to a close, take a moment (yes, right now) to reflect on how your team has collaborated with internal and external stakeholders this year. You may have brought in external voices, or coordinated with other teams. There may have even been some big collaboration wins. But there’s probably still work to be done.
Good, strategic collaboration doesn’t just happen as we hop from one conference room to the next, meeting to meeting. It’s about choosing intentionally where it makes sense to invest in collaboration, thinking through what form that collaboration should take, and ensuring the right resources (including time) are in place to follow through on those decisions. And it’s difficult to achieve all the time. So how can you do better in 2019?
While reviewing the 2018 Collaborating, Learning and Adapting Case Competition submissions, I noticed a few collaboration-related lessons learned that we can all benefit from.
1) Plan, plan, plan
The beginning of a new project or activity is the best time to schedule and plan for strategic collaboration. During the initial launch meeting of Feed the Future Tanzania’s NAFAKA II Activity, it became clear that existing staff and partners wanted to fall back on NAFAKA I activities, such as using demonstration plots and village-based agricultural advisors, to improve production practices, and had not made the mental shift to the market facilitation approach of NAFAKA II. Additionally, communication silos existed between technical teams and regional offices.
Below are some ways that NAFAKA addressed this challenge by building collaboration into the activity right from the beginning. You’ll see that their very holistic CLA approach also exemplifies a culture of openness, regular opportunities to pause and reflect, and good use of learning from monitoring and evaluation.
- Senior management amended the program’s quarterly and annual meetings to bring together key technical staff and private sector actors to provide more in-depth analysis of program activities. These changes included a focus on sharing lessons learned and providing staff-driven discussion forums for understanding why certain interventions were struggling to meet results.
- NAFAKA introduced bi-annual CLA summit meetings to allow the technical and M&E teams to jointly pause and reflect on project indicators.
- They created a NAFAKA WhatsApp group so that staff working in the field could share stories, photos, and thoughts in real-time to ensure that programmatic knowledge is shared among staff members.
ACDI/VOCA reports that implementing these interventions “changed the way we work as a team and externally with farmers and stakeholders.” The team has also been able to make better use of data in decision-making and engage with colleagues across geographical barriers. Furthermore, intentional collaboration facilitated an effective shift from NAFAKA I to NAFAKA II by helping teams start on the same page, with regular opportunities to be reminded of activity goals and realities on the ground.
2) Invite participation with targeted communication
Effective collaboration requires good communication, especially to get buy-in in the initial stages of an activity. For example, the Lab’s Evaluation, Research, and Learning (ERL) Plan required staff to document evidence and weigh in during periodic Strategic Learning Reviews. But ginning up interest in an activity that staff didn’t initially see as essential to their work wasn’t easy.
Here are some helpful lessons from the EIA team on how to use engagement strategies to encourage collaboration:
- “Generate interest and enthusiasm among the staff stakeholders through a consistent communications campaign. Using a less formal, more fun brand for the Lab ERL Plan - including themed communication updates (with GIFs!) to all Lab staff - helped differentiate these efforts from typical accountability initiatives. A light-hearted tone and cartoon-style graphics conveyed a sense of collaborative work-in-progress that invited staff to stay engaged and keep contributing as the process evolved.”
- “Choose (and adapt) the timing and framing of interactions to ensure that people understand how the engagement will (potentially) benefit them, and address an existing interest or issue, without overburdening people who are already busy. Tying ERL Plan outputs to pressing decisions such as budgets and strategy issues was one way the Lab was able to achieve this.”
- “Provide entry points and roles for leadership and staff, and use communications to help participants understand what's in it for them. Support natural champions of the process by facilitating quick wins with them, and maintain enthusiasm by highlighting work they’ve done that already aligns with desired outcomes.”
The EIA team reports that these efforts allowed evaluation findings that had previously been siloed within specific teams to be shared across the bureau, and facilitated relationship building and tacit-knowledge sharing across Lab operating units.
3) Go the extra mile to be inclusive
Let’s be honest, inclusion can be hard! Bringing in a diverse set of voices can require more work to overcome geographic barriers, language barriers, systemic marginalization, etc. But truly collaborative and locally led development requires us to take the time to reach those hard-to-reach people and bring them into our development processes.
USAID/Uganda faced this challenge while working on their latest Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS). They set out to empower communities to define their own development goals by convening regional Steering Committees composed of decision-makers representing different segments of society. The key steps in their inclusive process were: identifying about 200 stakeholders who were thought to be influential in their districts and communities, including local government and religious leaders, medical professionals, etc.; convening these stakeholders to prioritize the most pertinent development challenges and share ideas about potential interventions; facilitating smaller working groups to ensure that all participants had an opportunity to voice their opinions, and commissioning a Steering Committee to represent the group in developing a regional strategy for development.
But unfortunately, the process did not turn out to be as inclusive as they planned. They report that: “Representation was an issue on the Steering Committee representing Northern Uganda because the group was given autonomy to decide on the process and seemed to be dominated by the louder, more political voices. The Steering Committee elected consisted of 14 men and only 1 woman, posing a development challenge for USAID to find a balance between promoting local ownership and also inserting globally recognized best practices and institutional values.” To overcome this challenge, USAID/Uganda decided to hold consultation meetings with women’s and youth groups. Bringing those critical voices into the conversation required an extra step, and USAID/Uganda took the time do it because it was important for their objective.
Looking for more tips on strategic collaboration? Here are some additional resources on USAID Learning Lab: