A Case of Burdensome Nurturing: Setting Limits
Collaboration may fail if too much energy is spent on maintenance
Nurturing a collaboration is a delicate balance of care for individual participants and the work at-hand, including the people who will potentially benefit from the work. Sometimes, though it seems advantageous to include the “best” partners, this model can easily become a collaboration with “centrifugal” tendencies. In other words, the central focus of the collaboration should always be the work and the potential impact of work, not the people around the table.
Sally, a high-level government official working in the Department of Education, reflects on a collaboration she had put together with several highly-esteemed corporate partners, considered the best in the country. Importantly, each flagship corporation had enough money to “pay its own way,” so that the collaboration did not need any external funding.
The goal of the collaboration was to improve the quality of education offered at some of the worst schools in America—specifically, low-performing schools in underprivileged urban areas. Sally wanted the collaboration to be the mark of the federal education reform, providing teachers and students access to resources and programs that would enable them to teach and learn in innovative ways. In a one-on-one interview nearly twenty-five years later, she summarizes and reflects on this collaboration:
Sally: The operating plan was for coalition of blue chip American companies to come together to “fix” American education. We wanted to break the mold of schools—come up with ideas for schools very different in form, structure, [and] content from the currently existing ones. I reached out to some of the largest corporations. I was on good terms with the CEOs and Board Chairmans. We had all the “right” partners—a technology partner, a management partner, a creative partner, and so on. All of the partners were first-rate organizations, brand names in the United States, really good people agreeing to collaborate with us, each of them taking responsibility for a particular piece of the puzzle that we wanted to work on. In most cases, the people that they would have working with us were among their top executives and so, really good people. And it was a long-term commitment, the sort of thing you dream of when you put a collaboration together.
It didn’t work. I later learned that our vision for the collaboration and more importantly, the operating plan was horribly naive.
Interviewer: IT DID NOT WORK?
Sally: It did not work. Generally speaking, I think people have the view that collaboration is costless. But there is more to cost than just the financial piece. Collaboration is actually very costly, in terms of time and energy spent keeping the collaboration together. And let me just illustrate with this example.
Each of these organizations had their own objectives, either the organization as a whole or the part of the organization with which I was working, typically led by a charismatic person who had their own vision of what needed to be done, typically capitalized in their particular area of expertise and interest. And they pulled together a group of people who shared that vision and wanted to work as a team to make it happen.
I caught most of them at a point in time when their vision and our vision intersected. Didn’t necessarily overlap entirely, but enough to make a collaboration worthwhile to both partners. But over time, circumstances change. It’s not that anybody was of bad faith at all. I don’t think that happened in this case at all. It sometimes has happened to me, but not in this case.
But needs changed as an organization; their vision evolved, and I did nothing to nurture the collaboration to meet those needs. People came and went in the organization. Sometimes that included the leadership. People to whom they reported had different aims and objectives over time. Organizations suffered various kinds of financial reverses. All kinds of things happen to an organization which force that organization in a different direction or simply lead them in a different direction. Right?
And the same was true of this collaboration. I discovered that what I had put together [was] an organization with enormous centrifugal tendencies. And you can’t keep that together forever. It takes an enormous amount of energy, which I tried to do, and the more energy I put into that, the less energy I had available to pay attention to the people we were trying to help.
Interviewer: COULD YOU TALK ABOUT THAT ENERGY? WHAT WERE THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECTS OR THE PIECES THAT TOOK YOU THE MOST TIME?
Sally: Well, in a literal sense, it’s talking to people. I mean a few of the companies were going through their own evolutions. With one particular company, when I started out with them, they were dripping with money and the school business was a very large part of their business. And so they set up this group inside the company with, in fact, carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to by way of figuring out new things to do in schools that were neat.
But over time, things changed. Other players came in and the company got a smaller and smaller share of the market. Meanwhile other opportunities opened up, and the corporate leadership introduced different opportunities, which were not so school-friendly. And so on. And so the unit with which I was working was coming under pressure to produce results. And these guys were drowning. And the collaboration that we had wasn’t going to get them where they needed to go because of the internal stresses in the organization. Working with them over the two years in which all of this was evolving took a lot of my time. That was one of about eight partners, but just illustrating that point. But this was what was happening virtually across the board. None of it was a failure of good will. For the most part they were the same good people I started out with. But that was how it was. Just piece after piece like that.
I realized I needed an organization where most of the people doing most of the work were focused on our work. And for that to work, I needed to have people who were either our employees or were under long-term consultant contracts to give us a substantial amount of their time. Otherwise, with the best will in the world, we would be flying by each other—literally and figuratively—most of the time. In that kind of arrangement, when you’re working with partners who are only part of the work, have lots of other things they’re engaged in, and have to worry most of all about the integrity of their own organization, you’re going to spend all of your time keeping the coalition together and very little of it worrying about whether the work is actually getting done that has to get done if your organization is going to succeed.
So, as I say, I concluded from that that I needed to strike a very different balance. You could have a few of those relationships; they have to be carefully chosen and probably more open-ended.
In the end, the outcome was not a complete failure. According to Sally, when she went to some of the schools throughout the country to look for changes and progress, she saw evidence that the individual partners were making a difference for teachers and students. But they were working completely independently of each other. There was no synergy from the collaboration. As she laments, “I felt really good about the quality of the resources that we had brought to these folks, because it was topnotch. But I didn’t feel that we were advancing the agenda with which we had begun. We weren’t changing the way the system worked at all.”