From Stalemate to Solutions

Karen Abrams Gerber & Andrea Jacobs  at Stanford Social Innovation Review: “….We waste time asking, “How can we change the way people think?” when we should be asking, “How do we change the way we do things?”

Changing how we do things isn’t just about reworking laws, policies, and systems; it means rethinking the very act of problem-solving. We believe there are five basic tenets to successful collaboration:

  1. Engaging unlikely bedfellows
  2. Creating a resonant vision
  3. Cultivating relationships
  4. Communicating across worldviews
  5. Committing to ongoing learning

Over the past two years, we’ve researched an organization that embodies all of these: Convergence Center for Policy Resolution “convenes people and groups with conflicting views to build trust, identify solutions, and form alliances for action on critical national issues.” Its projects include reimagining K-12 education, addressing economic mobility and poverty, reforming the federal budget process, financing long-term care, and improving the dietary choices and wellness of Americans.

The organization’s unique approach to collaboration enables adversaries to work together and develop breakthrough solutions. It starts with targeting and framing an issue, and then enrolling a wide spectrum of stakeholders. Over an extended period of time, these stakeholders attend a series of expertly facilitated meetings to explore the issue and identify solutions, and finally take joint action….

Foundational to Convergence’s success is the principle of engaging unlikely bedfellows. Stakeholder diversity helps eliminate the “echo chamber” effect (also described by Witter and Mikulsky) created when like-minded groups talk only with one another. The organization vets potential stakeholders to determine their capacity for working with the tensions and complexities of diverse perspectives and their willingness to participate in an emergent process, believing that each ideological camp holds a crucial piece of the puzzle and that the tension of differing views actually creates better solutions.

Convergence exemplifies the power of creating a resonant vision in its approach to tackling big social issues. Framing the issue in a way that galvanizes all stakeholders takes tremendous time, energy, and skill. For example, when the organization decided to focus on addressing K-12 education in the United States, it engaged in hundreds of interviews to identify the best way to frame the project. While everyone agreed the system did not serve the needs of many students, they had difficulty finding consensus about how to move forward. One stakeholder commented that the current system was based on a 19th-century factory model that could never meet the needs of 21st-century students. This comment sparked a new narrative that excited stakeholders across the ideological spectrum: “reimagining education for the 21st century!”

It’s important to note that Convergence focuses on framing the problem, not formulating the solution(s). Rather, it believes the solution emerges through the process of authentic collaboration. This differs significantly from an advocacy-based approach, in which a group agrees on a solution and then mobilizes as much support for that solution as possible. As a result, solutions created through Convergence’s collaborative approach are better able to weather the resistance that all change efforts face, because some of that resistance is built into the process.

Change takes time, and so does cultivating relationships. In an article last year, Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman, and David Sawyer wrote, “The single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants.”…..

Change is complex and certainly not linear. Convergence’s approach “lives” this complexity and uncertainty. In its own words, the organization is “building the ship while sailing it.” Its success is due in part to actively and simultaneously engaging each of the five tenets of authentic collaboration, and its work demonstrates the powerful possibilities of authentic collaboration at a time when partisan rancor and stalemate feel inevitable. It proves we can change the world—collaboratively—without anyone relinquishing their core values….(More)”