I was fortunate to spend the last week with 23 other cross-sector leaders who are doing amazing things – everything from changing how PepsiCo sources its fruits in order to benefit local economies and increase the nutritional content of their drinks, to scaling an evidence-based afterschool program throughout the country, to developing and disseminating an exciting model for community organizing to build resilience. We are all part of the inaugural class of Cross-Sector Leadership Fellows, a partnership of the Presidio Trust and the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. After a week’s worth of collaborating and learning with this team of innovators, my brain is overflowing with lessons learned about cross-sector collaboration and I wanted to share a few.
- People’s attention is seriously divided. Getting access to the attention of your partners keeps getting harder and harder. Email inboxes are overflowing with messages we should have read, twitter is feeding us more messages then we will ever read and most of us never get around to opening email attachments. Yet, cross-sector work depends on good communication. This means when we’re convening a cross-sector partnership we need to be prepared to spend face time and phone time catching people up and making sure we hear their needs.
- A neutral party who can help surface competing agendas and needs is critical. This can be the facilitator, a developmental evaluator, a cross-sector coach, etc. Whatever their title, this neutral third party is a critical part of the process. All of the partners need a confidential, unbiased partner, someone they can talk to – including some venting – and begin to break down the problem and figure out how they can be part of the solution.
- Solutions aren’t created in one big swoop, but piece by piece over time. When’s the last time someone developed a big visionary plan to solve a truly complex problem, implemented it, and said at the end of the day, “Yes, we nailed it! No changes needed!”? Never. Because tough problems wouldn’t be tough if we knew how to solve them. Testing out different ideas, trying to fix pieces of the problem, and evaluating the impact are all part of tackling the complex problems facing society. However, we need to make sure the small tests along the way are directly related to where we want to go in the big picture.
- Never lose focus on the change you’re trying to cause in the world. Every meeting with partners, one-on-one conversation, email, and newsletter needs to keep the meaningful difference that is driving the work front and center. Not only does it inspire us, but it helps us figure out how to make it through all the competing demands on our resources and conflicting expectations. After all, we wouldn’t be doing the tough work of cross-sector collaboration if we weren’t passionate about changing the world to be a better place.
I will continue to blog about the lessons I’m learning on this cross-sector journey, including what we learned spending a day with some of the federal government’s most innovative leaders, our lessons from visiting the DC Central Kitchen, and what one can learn from watching cross-sector work in action that is triggered by leaders in corporations, non-profits, local government, federal government, and small businesses.