Idea Bank

Cross Sector Collaboration Dilemmas and Tensions


With contributions by CSC Study Group members

A “strategy map” describes a sequence of phases associated with several types of cross-sector collaborations and some of the activities associated with each phase. In practice, no process “blueprint” describes precisely how a process may unfold. Nor can it anticipate all the process dilemmas or tensions that occur in the design and implementation of collaborative processes. Outlined below are some typical tensions that can occur. How to respond to each depends on the issue, the larger context, the participants and their history with each other and a host of other factors. While dilemmas and tensions may add complexity to an issue or process, they also help to understand the full context of an issue, resulting in effective, long-lasting problem solving. While it may be impossible to prevent or circumvent dilemmas and tensions, there is value to considering issues early and often.

  • Intervene early to address an issue or await “ripeness”? When is the best time to encourage the formation of a cross-sector collaboration? An early intervention can lead to early problem resolution, but that is less likely if key stakeholders have inadvertently been left out, the issue has been incompletely defined or the participants don’t have a path to get their “solution” on the legislative or executive agenda. On the other hand, waiting until the problem is at an impasse, key participants have been identified and there is a greater sense of urgency may result in missed opportunities for early resolution.
  • Focus on easily identifiable problems or deeper “root” causes? Participants in a cross-sector collaboration may choose to focus on easily identified and understood organizational or community issues in an effort to implement an immediate fix. In some processes, an immediate fix may bring temporary relief to deeper, more persistent and less well understood causes.  Focusing on more complex problem causes in order to develop more sustainable solutions may require more time, resources, technical analysis and value commitments than groups or their sponsors want to make.
  • Focus on current needs or future generations? Some community issues, particularly those involving commitments of scarce resources, involve choices with implications for future generations. Determining whether and how to be responsible to future generations requires attention to both the values of the group as well as the necessary technical skills to assess the implications of those value choices.
  • Empower the collaborative group to make decisions vs. authority to develop recommendations only. How much authority does a given collaborative group have? What’s the source of the group’s authority? Will the collaborative group be empowered to develop agreements that commit specific organizations and stakeholders to specific actions—or will the group be making recommendations that other organizations may or may not accept?
  • Organize a directive process vs. more elicitive process. Sometimes, as might be revealed in preliminary assessment interviews, participants may want someone who can exercise high levels of control over the process. They may want a leader who has especially strong substantive expertise and can make content judgments to help break deadlocks. In some other instances, they may want someone to lead an effort as a project organizer, facilitator, sponsor or convener who will be less directive and more “facilitative.”
  • Include all potential stakeholders or limit participation? Who should participate in a cross-sector collaboration? One conventional answer is that anyone who can affect the implementation of an agreement should be involved. In practice, experienced process conveners and facilitators know that some participants lack the process skills, ability to listen empathetically or willingness to engage in problem solving that are necessary prerequisites of effective collaboration. In some cases individual coaching or mentoring can help a passionate, but inexperienced or disruptive participant increase their understanding of problem solving goals and improve their process skills. In rare cases exclusion is an extreme option to be weighed against the potential consequences of their non-participation.
  • Formality vs. informality. How formal should a collaborative process be? Should a process follow strict protocols regarding sequence of speakers, being acknowledged before speaking, decision making in the group and the like? How do facilitators and stakeholders co-create a process that serves the “process culture” most amenable to problem solving?
  • Go fast or go slow? In the spirit of efficient problem solving, some participants in a collaborative process are eager to address the problem and focus on a specific problem mitigation strategy. However appropriate that may be in some cases, there are other situations in which the history of the issue, the relationships among participants, the nature of the problem or other considerations may require engaging in trust-building, more extensive problem analysis or other activities that undermine the desire for efficiency among some members of the group.
  • Whose knowledge counts? Reconciling technical knowledge that comes from professionals not from the community with “local” knowledge. Marine biologists, economists, hydrologists and other experts participating or assisting in cross sector collaborations sometimes find themselves in conflict with each other or with long-time community residents who have detailed “local knowledge” gained over many years of particular places, resources or community resource management practices. How are conflicting knowledge claims, particularly those that pit “technical” and professional knowledge that comes from outside a community against “local knowledge that comes from inside a community, to be acknowledged and addressed in ways that all participants will regard as legitimate?
  • Facilitator as process director vs. process coach, advisor or intermediary. What role should a process facilitator play in a particular cross-sector collaboration? Should the facilitator orchestrate the process directly, serve primarily as a coach to leaders in the group or in some other non-directive capacity? What considerations shape the choice of what role the facilitator should play in a process? How does the process facilitator communicate the role choices most effectively?
  • Honoring the needs of some participants to vent and historicize vs. commitments to an efficient “civil” process. Among the promises often made on behalf of informal problem solving processes is that they will be efficient, fair and civil for all participants. In practice, civility and efficiency are sometimes in jeopardy. Some cross sector collaborations include a variety of participants, some of whom are experienced in group processes and some who are not. Given the range of backgrounds and experience participants bring to a process and the passions surrounding some issues, it is possible that some initial exchanges will be angry and accusatory. Some participants may feel the need to explain the context of their passion at length. For some these interpersonal “explosions” may feel like a violation of the ground rules they were promised. The challenge to facilitators is to offer ways to make airing of grievances safe and productive for the entire group.

Crafting specific narrow agreements vs. vague moral commitments. Groups sometimes find it difficult to reach agreement on all or most of the issues before them. Getting group consent may require choosing between narrow, carefully crafted commitments on a few issues or general, more vaguely worded agreements to address a broader range of issues.

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