Collaborating for shared value

12 Nov 2018
SOURCE:
Abbie Reynolds, SBC Executive Director

Speech by Abbie Reynolds to the MPI Biosecurity Forum

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I’m Abbie Reynolds. I’m the Executive Director of the Sustainable Business Council.  We’re a membership organisation that is part of the BusinessNZ family.

Our purpose is to help our 103 members be the best FOR New Zealand and the world. One way we do that is by bringing them together in collaborations on issues like climate change, sustainable leadership, or the future of work.

We think working in this way gives us the best chance of influencing the system in which we operate.  We don’t believe that working in our own silos can have the impact we need, in the time we have available.

It is the same for biosecurity – we need to be able to work together, across sectors and across the whole system if we’re going to have real impact. I know this all sounds like motherhood and apple-pie.  We all know this.  It’s self-evident.

But the dirty little secret about collaborating and cross sectoral work, is that because it requires us to work in new and different ways, it can be hard.  It’s slow.  It requires us to get close to people who aren’t our people.  It requires us to give things up, or to renegotiate loyalties.  It requires us to care about the things that our collaborators care about. But when it works, it can be powerful.

At SBC we’ve been experimenting with collaborations and systems change thinking for a while now.  We’ve learnt a lot. We’ve probably learned more about what not to do, than what to do.

I think it’s important that we share what we’re learning.  We’re not great at collaboration in NZ – and the challenges we need to navigate are going to force us to do more and more of it.  So if we’re going to get better at it, let’s learn from each other.

Here’s some of what I think I’ve learned, which I hope will be useful as you kick off your next two days together.

Beware the tyranny of ‘should’

A few years ago I was speaking to a Director at an advertising agency. We were talking about creating movements of change – in this case we were interested in what it would take to get all New Zealanders to care for our most excluded and disadvantaged young people.

He told me if we wanted to create nationwide movement, we needed to find a way of getting the issue into New Zealanders list of care & concern.  And typically that was only 3 or 5 issues long.

It’s been a valuable piece of advice.  We’re constantly competing for people’s time and attention.  No matter how worthy the issue, we need to remember that what we think everyone ‘should’ be concerning themselves might be way down their list of priorities.  Not because they don’t care, but because there other issues they care more about, or they have more clear & present issues to deal with.

A wise friend of mine uses a hypothetical solo mother of two in Flaxmere to test any ‘should’ statements about sustainability.  Imagine all of the different pressures on this mum, living in rural New Zealand.  Expecting her to prioritise sustainability is unrealistic.  It doesn’t mean she won’t, but that her circumstances make it harder. And if we substitute the word biosecurity for sustainability, I suspect we’d arrive at the same conclusion.

This insight also applies to working in cross sectoral collaborations and partnerships.

When I first started in this job, I was involved in a cross-sectoral collaboration on climate change.  I learned a lot from that.  One of my key lessons was that, after a career spent in business, I had no idea what the success factors & drivers & reality of day to day life were for the other sectors – for academia, for government, for iwi, for the community sector.

And as a result, my assumptions about what ‘should’ matter to them were often wrong.  Equally, their assumptions about business were often wrong too.  A common view is that the only thing business cares about is profit. That’s rather too simplistic, and I think increasingly untrue.

At the same time, I often hear government officials tell me how business ‘should’ care about a certain policy intervention – and they are usually right.  But the reality on the ground is that even big businesses of 3000 people might only have a handful of policy people.  The rest of them are delivering whatever the purpose of the organisation is. And like everyone they have to prioritise.

When you hear yourself saying the word ‘should’ about one of your stakeholders, it’s an invitation to better understand why they aren’t.

Go slow to go fast

One of the things I’ve found most useful in overcoming the tyranny of should, is spending time right up front with collaborators - sharing motivations, building trust, setting a vision, co-designing solutions.  Whatever is appropriate for the purpose at hand.

And if you’ve got the opportunity to have that process facilitated by someone who knows how to do that sort of work – then all the better.

The best collaboration I’ve ever been involved in was with three other philanthropists which resulted in the establishment of Voyce Whakarongo Mai, the peak body for kids in care. Right at the beginning we spent time developing a shared purpose, understanding each other’s drivers, and exploring what issues might knock us off track. The core principles we agreed in that first session were a touchstone for the work we did for the following 2 years.  And that session only took half a day.

In the collaborations where we didn’t do this or didn’t do it well, we spent more time later trying to reach agreement, or trying to figure out the way forward because we hadn’t dealt with it at the beginning.

By going slow at the beginning, you can go fast later.

A note of caution.  This ‘going slow to go fast’ is hard for business leaders.  My observation is that Kiwi business CEOs have a very strong action and output orientation, and have so many demands on their time, that they find it really challenging to spend, what they regards as unproductive time, at the beginning of a process building trust and investing in relationships – even if they rationally know it will let them go fast later.

Make it easy, make it frictionless

The benefit of really understanding people’s motivations, their drivers, what success looks like, their current reality, the pay-offs for them in the current approach and why they aren’t doing what they ‘should’, is that we are then in a position to make it easy for them to do the right thing.

We were involved in establishing the Climate Leaders Coalition.  It now has 70 CEO signatories, representing more than 50% of New Zealand's emissions, committed to reducing their carbon footprint and doing their share to keep the planet below 2 degrees of warming.

To get them there we have spent a lot of time wrangling extremely time-poor CEOs, who have other urgent matter competing for their attention.

I have a rule for working with them – and that’s to make the work, wherever possible, frictionless.  That’s my way of thinking about how to remove the barriers, large & small, that might stop them taking their next step together.  Our best chance of keeping them engaged & having an impact is to make it more easy, than not, to be involved.

It’s not to say that they don’t care about the issue – they do – passionately. It’s simply the case that there is so much going on in their world that staying engaged is hard.

If we want people across all the sectors and at home involved in improving New Zealand’s biosecurity outcomes, then your mission is to find ways to make that as easy for them as possible.

Tell good stories

My final insight is about the importance of story-telling.  People very rarely make change or act because of facts or information alone. People wouldn’t still be smoking if we were driven by facts.  We wouldn’t be overweight.  We’d always wear our seatbelts and not text and drive.

We are emotional, social beings with a deep need to communicate.  And we love telling and love listening to stories.

If we want to have an impact, we need to think about the stories we’re telling.  We need to find the stories that engage and mobilise, that help people make sense of the world and give them reasons to behave differently.

In our work on climate change, we’re looking for the stories of the low carbon future that excite and invite people into it, as an antidote to the fear based narratives which mostly focus on what we will lose.

What are the biosecurity stories we need to tell?

Empathy & compassion

If I was to distil what I’ve talked about today into a central theme it would be about compassion and empathy.  Our collaborations work best if we’re prepared to understand another person’s world view and what success means to them.  Leading behavioural change and engaging people works best if we are prepared to understand the reality of the world they currently inhabit and what matters to them.

And when things are urgent, as you are no doubt feeling now, this is often the first discipline to go.

So for the sake of our taonga, our biodiversity, the security of economy, please stay connected to your empathy & compassion as you do this work.

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