Collaboration in the face of complex problems

As the world has watched the ‘Arab Morning’ spread across North Africa and countries of the Middle East this year, we have been amazed by tales of everyday heroism, and heartbroken by stories of unimaginable violence and loss.

Last week, I opened my keynote presentation to the UK Institute of Fundraising‘s National Convention with one such story—that of Hamza al-Khateeb, the 13 year-old boy who was savagely beaten and murdered at the hands of Syria’s security forces.

smallworld2Stories such as his strike a devastating blow to our faith in the goodness of humanity; sadly, it is too easy and far from accurate to dismiss Hamza’s story as the result of a deranged security officer. In fact, Amnesty has reported numerous other children and teenagers have been tortured and murdered since Hamza’s story broke around the world. So the problem is even more disturbing and complex than one would at first believe.

It is this complexity that fundraisers, activists and social change leaders face across a diverse range of issues and problems. From the Arab Morning to climate change to urban degradation, complex problems require distinct approaches from simple ones.

The Cynefin framework spells out a useful rubric for assessing four different types of problems:

  1. Simple problems are like baking a cake, or raising funds for a program in an established charity. These problems are easily categorized, cause and effect are predictable, and best practices can be applied to resolve them.
  2. Complicated problems are like landing an aircraft, or mounting a capital campaign for a new, major infrastructure project. Diverse factors must be analyzed and understood before good practices can be applied.
  3. Complex problems are like raising a child, or resolving the crises spreading across the Middle East today. Cause and effect can only be assessed with the benefit of hindsight; we must respond without a full detailing of the problem, and allow the right practices to emerge as we work on solutions.
  4. Chaotic problems have no systems-level cause and effect correlation. In situations like those faced by Banda Aceh in the days following the 2004 tsunami, equipped NGOs acted as best they could, analyzed how their efforts were working, and adjusted their approaches. They had to innovate in real time to deliver aid.

In the realm of fundraising, simple problems are easily addressed: Training for any fundraising designation will include learning of best practices that can be applied to simple problems. The same is essentially true for complicated problems, though these are more often addressed by teams who collectively can complete adequate analysis and assessment, before devising a plan. Chaotic problems necessarily require instinctive, rapid action; select NGOs such as CARE and the Red Cross are equipped to be this responsive, but each emergency requires different solutions. They learn and adapt in real time.

Complex problems, though, can only be addressed if diverse expertise, significant energy, openness to new ideas and approaches, and adaptive leadership are brought to bear.

During my keynote, I used the case of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest to explain how complex problems can be addressed through focused, structured, multi-party collaborations. After the successful completion of the Rainforest Solutions Project’s 10-year campaign to save the Great Bear, the team wrote and published a book that looks back at the campaign, its structure, and seven key lessons that they learned in the development of the collaborative that united NGOs, industry, First Nations and government.

To their seven, I’ve added three additional criteria to define this list of guidelines for developing effective collaborations in the face of complex challenges:

  1. Be Bold: Paint a clear, concise and compelling vision of change. This will rally and focus the team.
  2. Build Power: Real change requires real influence. Understand where power lies, and engage those groups and individuals in the collaborative.
  3. Create Coalitions: Find strength in numbers.
  4. Build Common Ground: Create alliances of ‘strange bedfellows’—and learn from each other.
  5. Lead from Shared Values: Establish codes of conduct early and collectively. How we work is as important as what we do.
  6. Be Proactive: Design and drive the solutions. Demonstrate leadership, and share management.
  7. Practice Humility: Lose your ego. No individual or individual organization has the answers, and being right today doesn’t at all imply we’ll have the right ideas tomorrow.
  8. Stay Positive: Persistent optimism is infectious.
  9. Mobilize Learning: Complexity requires emergent solutions. Mistakes will be made. Everyone involved must learn from them.
  10. Build In Objectivity: It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, when you’re involved day-to-day. A control committee is a powerful objective auditor.

Complexity can be daunting and overwhelming, but with appropriate strategy and productive collaboration, complexity can be addressed and the major issues we face can be resolved.

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