A Case of Dis-Engagement: Acting Alone
Collaboration needs to be built on the vision and ownership of others
Processes, products, and ideas are almost always improved by welcoming the multiple perspectives of the individuals involved. However, quality work is not improved by a mere collection of individuals; rather it emerges when the individuals collaborate in a genuine and meaningful way—when they care about the work and feel engaged in the process and the outcomes. Sustaining participants’ engagement is an important element to the process of collaboration. Without personal and professional investment in the work, collaborations can easily fall apart or equally alarming, never get off the ground.
Zoe is a community organizer in a small rural community. A former journalist, she left her position at the town newspaper because of her struggle to report objectively when she observed situations that made her uncomfortable. Instead of merely reporting on events, she wanted to create change. Zoe aspired to be a social activist.
Zoe’s town recently experienced a period of renewal. Under the leadership of a well-intentioned but poorly informed new state governor, millions of tax dollars were spent on restoring, relocating, and upgrading various public institutions, including schools, libraries, the town meeting hall, and a nearby children’s museum. Some individuals working for the governor felt that the newly refurbished resources were developed with little knowledge of the surrounding community; indeed, these costly renovations were ignored by residents, notably the youth. Zoe believed that not only could these spaces improve lives, but they also had the potential to create a vibrant community.
Zoe sought to find a way to get all of the major stakeholders involved. She thought a grassroots movement could motivate community members to integrate these resources into their lives. With the help of a longtime friend who worked in corporate marketing (and who had connections to local funding), Zoe drafted a strategic five-point plan about how to get others on board to share in her passion and enthusiasm. Her friend, who believed in Zoe and her ability to “get things started,” was able to secure a sizeable amount of money from an “angel funder”— enough to launch a movement that would tackle the five major points in her plan.
Zoe reached out to representatives from all over town—the local government, teachers union, parent groups, the elderly, religious groups, local businesses, and the local high school and college. She wanted to talk with them to find ways to engage the community in utilizing resources and participating in civic life (e.g. supporting local artists at the museum opening, attending a scholarly lecture at the library, going to a school play, cleaning up the local playground). Much to her surprise, Zoe came to realize that this task was not easy. Of twenty people contacted, only two people returned her call and only one person responded to her email. In scheduling meetings with these three people, only one said that she was willing to work with Zoe.
Deflated and confused, Zoe called her only funder to ask for help. She was surprised by his strong recommendation, which felt more like a mandate, to drop the plan and return the money. Zoe had no choice in the matter: how could she prove that she could motivate people if they had not even returned her call? Without an adequate answer, she reluctantly surrendered her goals. Perhaps as she had time to reflect and gain more experience, she could revisit the project in the future.
Reflecting on the experience, Zoe realized that she had simply assumed that others would “buy in” to her vision statement and the five-point plan. Instead, Zoe should have asked for help in co-constructing the plan and in providing pivotal input, rather than immediately telling participants what to do. Because she had drafted the plan without asking for feedback, those she contacted had no opportunity to say what they believed needed to change and how that change could be brought about. Furthermore, because she had secured funding so easily, Zoe had assumed participants would feel energized about the work—but in fact she was wrong. Some of the participants saw this as “one more thing” to add to their already full plate of responsibilities.
Zoe has come to believe that a key factor in collaborating successfully is being “willing to spend time…truly understanding participants’ goals and coming to a unified vision about what we’re trying to accomplish.” Without such a foundation, participants don’t feel engaged in the process—they feel like outsiders, simply being called on to do extra work.
Despite the best of intentions, if the relevant individuals or groups have not participated in the process of articulating the goals and mission of the collaboration, it can feel “one-sided.” It is essential that the participants find the effort connected to their own interests (personal and professional), meeting their own needs, worth their time. Even with generous resources and the “right” person at the head, collaboration can fail in the absence of the participation and active engagement of the individuals involved.