Oct. 3

Commentary: Jeff Walker on Why Soloists Don’t Save the Day, Ensembles Do

by Jeff Walker

Why bringing together teams of organizations and individuals to collaborate is the best way to solve big problems. This piece originally appeared on Jeffrey Walker’s LinkedIn Influencers column.

Photo: josefnovak33 / Flickr

Photo: josefnovak33 / Flickr

The Takeaways:

  • No single individual, organization, corporation, foundation, or nation can solve the significant problems of the world. So let’s stop looking for heroes to address the important issues of our day. Instead, let’s focus on the bringing together the teams of organizations and individuals that must collaborate to address problems.
  • Start by identifying an honest broker to coordinate the collaboration—a person who is widely trusted and highly skilled in building partnerships. He or she will gather the limited funding needed to hold the collaboration together and measure its progress to common goals, the collaborative glue.
  • Next, put together a Key Influencer Map to identify the people and organizations that need to be involved. Then meet with those influencers to launch a collaboration. If the problem doesn’t have a widely-accepted solution, the discussions may be heated—which may force you to simplify your goal or accept a partial solution on the way to your ultimate objective.
  • Meeting periodically to share knowledge and measure progress can be useful. But deep collaboration is much more likely to produce fundamental/sustainable change.

I’m With the Band

When I started playing in a jazz band back in the seventh grade, one of the first things I learned was the difference between being a good soloist and being part of a great ensemble. It’s not enough to be skilled at playing your own instrument. You need to learn to listen to everybody else’s sound, develop the flexibility to let your rhythms and harmonies mesh with theirs, and give others the freedom to improvise. Little by little, you find yourselves producing, as a group, musical creations that soar above the capabilities of any single performer.

Today, as a philanthropist with a number of global causes I’m passionate about, I believe it’s time for us to learn the same lesson. In today’s world of philanthropy, it’s not enough to pick the best nonprofit to fund—the talented soloist. In fact, I am tired of the many egos that are rewarded at conferences by being featured as heroes and leaders for starting an organization, looking good, and telling a moving story. That is not what is needed to be truly successful in advancing the big causes of our day!

The really big problems we’re wrestling with are too complex for that. Instead, we need great ensembles that can achieve much more than any single artist, no matter how gifted—bands that combine the gifts of many kinds of stakeholders (nonprofits, foundations, governments, multilaterals, social businesses, academic and research institutions, and more) to produce a powerful and long-lasting impact in support of the causes in which we believe.

This is not a new idea. Over the last ten years, more and more cause-based collaborations have been coming together. Some have achieved remarkable success:

  • In the last seven years, a global collective focused on malaria has reduced the number of deaths per year from 900,000 to 400,000—and the goal of zero deaths is now within sight.
  • In the last four years, a consortium of organizations dedicated to preventing the passage of the AIDS virus from mothers to children has cut transmissions from 350,000 to 200,000, and the rate continues to plummet.
  • In the last two years, Target Zero, a collaborative effort aimed at ending the euthanasia of all safe, adoptable shelter animals nationwide, has cut the kill rate from as high as 64 percent annually to nearly zero in some cities through a hands-on mentorship model, where proven leaders teach local leaders evidence-based best practices.

Now this same kind of thinking is being applied to other big problems that are crying out for solutions from the Ebola virus, early childhood health and development, and background checks for gun purchases to high school graduation rates, job training, and reducing carbon in the atmosphere. Yes, there are great social entrepreneurs out there doing amazing things—leaders like Wendy Kopp at Teach for America, John Wood at Room to Read, and Bill and Melinda Gates at the Gates Foundation—as well as amazing organizations that have generated innovative models for change, from Kipp Schools and Kiva to Grameen Bank. But if we want to have a major impact in the world, it’s not enough to pick one of these worthy leaders or organizations and provide support for it. Nor is it sufficient to seek assistance from a particular government department or international agency, to help fund a university research program, or invest in one of the emerging financial tools designed for philanthropic impact, like a B corporation or a social investment fund. There are no silver bullets for important causes.

Instead, we need to assemble all these puzzle pieces and empower teams to pull the pieces together. Only a great team of partners is capable of applying problem-solving strategies, combined with the resources, talent, knowledge, and the will required to grow them to scale. And a great team can then use the communications methods, management techniques, and measurement tools needed to ensure maximum long-term impact. No more focus on charismatic personalities, innovative tools, and ground-breaking organizations….it is all about the cause and how all of those resources can come together to support it.

What It Takes To Build Cause-Based Collaborations

Fortunately, more and more people are recognizing the need for collaborative teams to tackle the biggest challenges humanity faces. We are seeing partnerships of this kind being built by organizations like New Profit to address issues such as early childhood education, college readiness, and the need for community health workers. Consulting firms like FSG and Deloitte/Monitor have set up entire practice units to assist groups in pulling together such collaborations.

Efforts like these have helped us identify some of the characteristics that effective collaborations share. They include:

  • A common cause, defined in terms that are clear and specific enough to be addressed through a targeted, practical effort. “Improving the health of people in Africa” is too broad. But “Reducing the number of people who die from malaria in sub- Saharan Africa” is specific enough to be actionable. Other good examples might include “Increasing the high school graduation rate in New York City” (as opposed to “Improving the national education system”) or “Reducing the rate of burnout among hospice caregivers” (as opposed to “Fixing US health care”).
  • A common measureable outcome—a quantitative result people can focus on that will enable stakeholders to track progress toward a shared goal. For the malaria effort, the key number is deaths from malaria by country; for Target Zero, it is tracking the increase in shelter save rates, by city. Having a meaningful metric that all partners agree upon makes it easy to measure progress, identify setbacks, and make adjustments as necessary. Check out Alma2015.org for an example.
  • An understandable solution or technology that everyone can rally around. Of course, identifying a solution that all partners support may not be easy. Long-lasting, insecticide-treated bed nets can prevent 80% of malaria infections—but it took a year to get the members of the consortium to agree to focus on this simple tool.This does not mean it will be the only or complete answer to the issue, but it does help focus funding and action on a single, high-impact approach.
  • An honest/unbiased broker—a person, group, or entity that is widely trusted and capable of rallying the interested parties behind the unified effort. The honest broker typically has autonomy from committed nonprofits and related organizations, and is not the most knowledgeable expert on the topic but rather is able to bring people together and can find the common linkages among members of a disparate group. This leader must have a “managed ego” (that is, the ability to subordinate his or her reputation or image to the importance of the case); be a superb networker (able to gather a wide array of people to share ideas and resources); be an in-the-moment, focused, and sensitive listener; have leadership experience; be seen not as a fundraising competitor but rather as a finder of new resources; and, of course, have a profound passion for the shared goal. The typical honest broker is a business leader in his or her second career who is skilled in collaboration, innovation, goal-setting, and other relevant activities. Other crucial qualities include humility, empathy, audacity, flexibility, and vision.
  • Links to key influencers—people or organizations whose support is essential to forging a complete solution. For example, when launching the African anti-malaria effort, the collaborators asked, “Who do we need to know in Nigeria to get started at wiping out malaria in that country?” A brainstorming session produced a Key Influencer Map that included the ministers of health and finance, various non-profits, key local business people, global companies with Nigerian operations, multilaterals like UNICEF and the Global Fund, local global foundations, nonprofits like Save the Children and World Vision, and religious leaders from the local Muslim community. Uniting influencers behind a common goal makes all the difference.
  • An enabling group to provide the collaborative glue.A small group of focused individuals needs to come together to create and maintain the collaborative effort. This group is typically of limited duration (several years) and is tasked with convening meetings, sharing knowledge, gathering resources, tracking outcomes, and holding the key stakeholders accountable for their commitments until the shared goal is achieved.

The Collaborative Process in Action

The anti-malaria collaborative we’ve mentioned several times illustrates how these characteristics can work in the real world. The enabling group was set up by Ray Chambers, the U.N. Special Envoy to the Secretary General for Health Finance and Malaria. Ray—the honest broker who made the entire effort possible—had personal connections to most of the key influencers whose help was needed: nonprofit leaders, government officials, business executives (especially in health care), academic and scientific experts, and others. Ray was able to convene several meetings at which the world’s best minds converged around a practical solution to the malaria problem—bed nets that would prevent the mosquito bites that spread the disease from person to person.

Ray then organized a small office to track the malaria collaboration’s goals, ensuring that bed net coverage was measured by country, flagging problems, and focusing senior-level attention on problems as they arose. This office also spawned the MDG Health Alliance, which has served similar support functions for programs focused on preventing mother-child transmission of AIDS, increasing the number of community healthcare workers in the developing world (my own focus), improving child and maternal health, and so on.

The office also defined a core set of values to unify and guide its activities. These values, as stated by the members of the MDG Health Alliance, include:

  • Use trust as a basis for change. Honesty and integrity drive our relationships, always.
  • Empower partners. Collaboration is the most important way to achieve the scale and impact we seek. We minimize our “need to be right” and remain adaptable and flexible.
  • Focus on game-changing opportunities. We only pursue levers for bold, catalytic change. We work toward measureable results with a sense of urgency.
  • Uphold purity of our purpose. We remain independent and keep everyone’s right to a healthy life at the center of our work. We have empathy and compassion for those we serve.
  • Inspire and actively support one another. We treat each other with care, form strong bonds and find joy in the day to day.

Defining and practicing values like these helps to ensure that the collaborative partnership remains focused on the issues that really matter rather than falling prey to the weaknesses that derail so many well-intentioned efforts, such as interpersonal squabbles, philosophical differences, tactical disagreements, ego battles, and irrelevant distractions.

Objections to Collaboration

Skeptics are dubious about the feasibility of philanthropic collaborations. They raise plenty of questions about the collaborative model, which you’ll need to be prepared to answer.

One objection is that collaboration sounds time-consuming, costly, and hard. Those who have been tackling a problem don’t want to slow down to listen and work with others; they have figured things out, and having to integrate their efforts with those of partners will create an average result rather than an optimal result.

In my experience, these assumptions are wrong. Solitary efforts have a higher likelihood of failure, and having others challenge your assumptions is often a productive exercise. Many academics and successful business people worry they will lose their authority, independence, and recognition if they work with others collaboratively . . . until they actually experience successful collaboration and discover the benefits it can bring.

Some leaders of nonprofits and academic institutions, accustomed to competing for limited funds, fear loss of income if they have to share efforts with other organizations. But in my experience, donors are actually more willing to fund ideas based on collaboration across entities than proposals from a single group.

Others worry that collaboration will degenerate into endless talk and meetings with little productive follow-through. This is a genuine risk. That’s why you must be ready to identify and fund the person, team, or organization that will drive the collaborative process. Without this collaborative glue, results may be elusive.

Finally, some causes lack the clear definition and focus needed to make unified action possible. Identifying “pollution” or “poor nutrition” as a cause and trying to unify around it will be a fruitless exercise. Break down the issue into addressable ideas and goals that people can unify around, like “reducing carbon from U.S. coal plants” or reducing the “body mass index (BMI) in children in schools.”

Understanding the fears of potential participants in a collaboration—and responding to them—is an important step to ensuring success.

The Future of Collaboration

Cause-based collaboration is no magic bullet. It still takes plenty of thoughtful research, creative insight, political savvy, and hard work to craft workable solutions to the biggest problems of humankind and then to make them widely available. But I’m convinced that, when it comes to most of the major challenges we face, multi-stakeholder partnerships are the key to achieving real progress. To make this happen, we need to:

  • Identify more honest brokers who will bring stakeholders together around shared causes. They will spend their time on coordination, communication, and ensuring a focus on a common measureable goal. Can we train people to be honest brokers? Could we create collaborative apprenticeships with mentors who can teach the art of brokering? There are many candidates waiting in the wings—let’s put them to work!
  • Spend time with others who share our interest in a cause to thoughtfully define the cause, explore a specific solution, and devise a system to measure results. Don’t give in to the temptation to jump at a solution that sounds right or that some professor or nonprofit is selling….take a deep breath and open up to other views.
  • Ask, early in our planning efforts for any new project, “Who can we collaborate with to improve our odds of success?” Don’t assume that the partnership path is too hard to follow—there are models for collaboration that will smooth the way.

Are you part of a collaborative effort to tackle a big social problem? Please share your stories with me. I am working with the Kennedy School at Harvard University to focus on the intersection of philanthropy, cause-focused action, and collaborative leadership. The more we learn from one another—from our setbacks and struggles as well as our triumphs—the more we can accomplish together.

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