Multi-party collaboration

AO organization development focuses its consultancy on work relations between organizations. Resilience in interorganizational teams and improving the ability to deal with deadlock in small group settings is a prominent topic. We explain some of our approach and methods here.

Multi-party collaboration is an inbuilt Dutch work characteristic . The ‘calling together of those involved’ is a reflex reaction on all our government and governance levels when dealing with more complex issues. The recent decentralization and deinstitutionalization policies (housing, care, youth care, social policy) in the Netherlands further stress this call for joint action. Here it concerns the coming together of different sectors, organizations and professional disciplines to pitch in. This local integration effort is not confined to the policy-making of organizations. Foremost it targets the (integrated) service delivery in so-called community based ‘interorganizational teams’. These are called ‘community team’, or ‘case teams’ for ‘multi-problem’-clients who need contributions from different organizations and professionals at the same time.

In general it is important to understand how teams acquire the needed resilience in order to cope with the complexity of their tasks. In our opinion this is even more so in the realm of inter-organizational teams since tasks, relations and procedures are often largely absent in comparison with intra-organizational teams. This characteristic of ‘under-organization’ makes the teams extra volatile and vulnerable for destructive conflict. Practice has shown that great personal skills and competences are required to work on the ‘boundaries’ of both your own and other’s home organizations. The less ‘sheltered workplace’ between organizations offers a chance to innovate outside the limitations of rigid organizational structures. Simultaneously it stipulates the need of still establishing minimal boundaries to the collective action, as you cannot improvise on nothing. This combination of relatively ambitious goals of the joint effort combined with the under-organization of its work setting has an impact on the relational dynamics and resilience in these teams.

Minimal structures for resilience – experiential learning to recover the structure

If resilience is the ability to recover quickly or the property to resume an original shape the issue of interorganizational teams is often their lack of an original shape to begin with. Interorganizational teams are in a constant effort to define a certain shape or structure that is strong enough to support their collective action but weak enough not to hinder the emergence of new versions and variants more fit to new circumstances and participants. Often professionals work in a multiplicity of local teams at the same time all with their own shapes and identities. The agility of these teams is both its distinctive and its delicate attribute.

Nonetheless the absence of an original shape we discern three dimensions in setting boundaries on the stage for the inter-organizational team effort:

  • development on the content of the team task;
  • interaction, trust and faireness issues and agreement on the outcome;
  • structururing, timing and phasing of the joint effort.

Within these three boundaries we developed the Multi-Party Roadmap as a model for understanding the structure and procedures of working in a multi-party context. On the horizontal line (the upper line in the scheme) we recognize the traditional and well-known stages of ‘one actor’-policy making: the first step is to define the problem to be solved, the next ones are about analysis, decision-making and taking steps for execution. In a multi-party setting these stages are of course still there, but the process gets an extra (vertical) dimension because of the necessity to align stakeholder parties in a gradually growing agreement on issues and solutions. A typical multi-party process thus starts with an ‘exploring and agenda setting’ stage in which a preliminary (and often: vaguely defined) problem area is defined and a ‘bunch’ of interested players is found who seem motivated to put collaborative effort in finding solutions on the issues at hand.

In addition to this sketching and planning we use the concept of ‘play’ (Winnicot 1971) to help boundary workers discover the world they work in and facilitate the development of competences they need. Playing occurs, for example, when we ask them to consider their ‘multi-party road map’ for their collective effort. This ‘learning exercise’ is about simultaneously developing content and social alignment while creating new alliances . Scheme 1 can be thought of as a ‘road map’ for the territory beyond the rationality within organizations: it functions as a precious ‘transitional object’ for boundary worker who travel there.


Dealing with deadlock for resilience – experiential learning recovery

The instrument of the road map is helpful as a ‘network in the mind-map’ which can illustrate the assumptions and considerations of the involved and make these accessible for each other and their collective action. While this is considered very helpful by people who work with it as it may ‘contain’ a certain amount of anxiety around the team effort more is needed when the small group enters deadlock of ‘group-impasse’ along the way. This is the situation at the table where any party is facing risk at either giving or demanding a concession to/from others.

Our CoLAB simulation games on multi-party collaboration are designed for experiential learning dealing with ‘group-impasse’ in interorganizational teams. The general lay-out of our simulation games consists of elements who potentially drive the small group into a standoff as we ‘script’:

  • multi-interpretable common goals,
  • different perspec¬tives and interests and
  • a communi­cation instruction which forces parti­cipants into an alternating sequence of delibe­ration with representatives around the ‘common’ table and with their individual ‘home organiza­tions’ which they represent at the table.

The game and its variants has been conducted about over 100 times in recent years and has always been thoroughly evaluated with participants, producing a remarkably consistency of results. One recurrent finding concerns the rapidly deteriorating problem-solving capacities ‘around the table’. Our findings are in line with the conclusions from the Yacht Club simulation game (Vansina et al., 1999 ) regarding the occurrence of behaviour patterns commonly regarded as destructive conflict.

Participants generally report ‘…being aware of, but unable to change’ these patterns and feel sucked into regressive feelings, attitudes and ‘…acting out’. Upon scrutiny this regression can often be traced to overwhelming emotions that occur after being caught in loyalty conflict, attack, being secluded, left out, misunderstood (etc.). Clearly this ‘entrapment’ of an intrinsically difficult group task and regressive individual and group behaviour does not promise easy solutions. Because of that we train people by play, thus both establishing a safe environment for discovering ‘…what can happen’ and a stimulating open search towards solutions.

We also train dealing with this deadlock situations. An often unexpected and surprising finding concerns the effectiveness of paradox to lead communication ‘..out of the trap’. The typical paradoxical intervention consists of:

  • Omitting (at least momentarily) any effort towards taking leadership or steering out of what currently happens,
  • Mildly mentioning and describing the (observable) behaviour from at least two parties which together hinder fruitful progression on the group task.

A systems-trained family therapist may recognize ingredients of prescribing the system. Surprising is the elegance of the intervention: omitting efforts towards steering is in fact quite easy, once awareness has set in that trying to take leads often only produces further regression from participants around the table. Moreover the capacity to describe ‘progress-hindering (splitting, destructive, etc.) behaviour’ develops easily as well once aware¬ness has been sharpened about how such behaviour indeed forces group work to a standstill. AO organizes workshops for managers, consultants and trainers who want to learn about ´leading collaborative processes’. Collaboration refers to those particular situations where people (or representatives) come together because of their membership in other organisations, groups or social categories. In all of these situations one relies on one’s skills in ´leading collaborative´. Yet, most of us have learned to compete, not to collaborate. Even our leadership models fail in these new situations where hierarchical relations are absent and where power loses its expected impact on independent parties. So Collaboration is a learned competence for a civilized society.