Art of the Start: Strategic Questions to Build Focus and Engagement

As I write this, I am on my way to a gathering of practitioners who work on networks approaches for large-scale social change, sponsored by the Garfield Foundation. We’ll be discussing the “art of the start” – how to navigate the early stages of an initiative. This is timely, as lately I have seen some of the common challenges in this stage, for example:

  • In a conversation with the Executive Director of a small non-profit, she shared her exasperation that funders are “pushing collaboration for collaboration’s sake and it’s not helpful.”
  • Some organizational leaders get enthused about the concept of “collective impact” and/or the idea of being a backbone support organization for collaboration, without a sense of where to start or how to coalesce around an issue, need, and or place.
  • In coaching a network coordinator on how to launch a new national network, a frequent theme of our conversations is how to motivate and engage people to participate, when they have lots of existing day-to-day organizational activities and priorities.
  • In teaching about more energizing and powerful ways of convening meetings and conversations that matter, I emphasize that the aim is to create a container for a group to self-organize and find the best answers together, rather than pushing or advocating one approach or solution – even the imperative to collaborate.

As I weave together these threads, a key question is:

How can you enable a group to find a focus for collaboration that inspires people to participate and engages their time and talents effectively?

What we found works is to host a series of conversations, seeded with open strategic questions. Here are some of the key ones (welcome your comments on additional suggestions):

Encourage storytelling around what motivates people

Strengthening relationships and trust is the foundational practice of building collaboration. As Meg Wheatley says, “the shortest distance between two people is a story.” I recently facilitated a World Café where we had groups of four discuss:

  • Share a story of what sparked or motivated you to get engaged in your community or this cause/issue.
  • What common themes do you hear?

This kind of conversation can happen across the whole group and in networked approaches, within each work group – to help people recognize the spark of motivation within themselves and discover where there is shared motivation.

Ground the conversations in the specifics

Move fairly quickly into real conversations about the issue, system, local context, and needs/aspirations. Talking too generally about collaboration or building networks using those terms can start to lose people. They are the means, the work coalesces around the ends: the shared purpose and goals. Here are sample questions:

  • What would be the most important issue to work on together (e.g., that none of us can address alone)? How do you see this issue playing out in your experience (for yourself, and/ or people around you)?
  • In the work you do, what do you see as the most pressing challenges related to [larger goal] (such as enabling all children in our community to reach their full potential)?
  • What is the most important conversation we are not having related to these challenges?
  • When you consider all the programs and organizations working in this space:
    • What is working that could be scaled?
    • What is missing or not having the desired impact?
  • What is a big goal we all share and are motivated to achieve?

Have people name what will make participation valuable 

A question that comes up a lot from those who want to broaden collaboration, is “how do we get more people to the table?” This question often leads (unproductively in my opinion) to one group trying to guess at what will entice another group to participate. Also, this dynamic can happen when a funder or other convener tries to engineer or direct a collaborative initiative, e.g., requiring participation.

Rather than guessing, we found it works best to ask potential participants to articulate what will make participating valuable for them. Here are some sample questions:

  • Assume you have ample funding and that being involved with this group was not a request/requirement of the funder, what would make this so valuable that you would make time for it?
  • How might this collaboration enable you/your organization to [support students] in ways that you can’t do alone? What’s the bigger aspiration that you want to work on that you can’t do now?
  • Share a story of a successful network/collaborative initiative you have experienced. What were the elements that made that work? What can be learned from collaborative initiatives that didn’t work?
  • What will motivate/support you to contribute and participate in working together for positive change over the long haul?

All of these questions lend themselves to participatory meeting formats such as World Café or others from Art of Hosting and/or Liberating Structures. The answers to these questions, when documented and synthesized, can provide design guidelines for a collaborative initiative/network that can be referred back to again and again.

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