The Root Cause Blog
25 Nov

Practical Collaboration: A Lesson Learned from the Root Cause Retreat

Written by Anand Dholakia, Senior Manager, Institute for Black Male Achievement

Like many people, I enjoy attending group meetings with people outside my own organization. Whether for a governing or advisory board, steering committee, commission, or partnership group, these meetings give me a chance to get out of the office, reconnect with people I know, meet new people, exchange ideas, and hear new perspectives. What I especially look forward to are those meetings where my group is expected to make some collective decisions, come to agreement around something, and get things done.  
More often than not, however, I leave such meetings feeling somewhat dissatisfied, given that we’ve talked in circles without having a real conversation, a large segment of the group did not get their priorities addressed, too many loose ends were left hanging, and I’m not sure what will happen next. In talking with others afterwards, I often hear that other attendees felt the same way, and yet we continue to shift uncomfortably in our seats at these meetings and nothing changes. Why is this so often the case? 
I recently experienced an alternate reality during our Root Cause senior leadership gathering at a retreat center up in the New Hampshire woods. Over a day and a half, 10 of us were to make some critical strategic decisions about our future and how we could best achieve our social mission (while spending some quality time as a group amidst the autumn foliage). We each came with wide-ranging individual goalsand strong opinions about where our greatest opportunities lie and where we needed to focus the organization’s attention. HOWEVER, we left the retreat unified with a common direction, priorities, clear next steps, and a renewed excitement to carry them through. The secret? 

1. A strong facilitator 
 2. A sensible group process 
 3. Appropriate tools

While we could have facilitated the group strategy sessions ourselves, having an outside facilitator allowed all of us to be present and be held accountable by a third party. She navigated us through a process that flowed seamlessly between problem solving in small breakout groups, individual project assignments, and full group discussions. Throughout our time in the woods we made use of forms, stickers, flip charts, and finely scented markers. And the result was magical (not because of the markers). 
In our sector we consistently talk at a high level about the need for greater collaboration. Often this is related to larger networks, and popular articles like “Collective Impact” and the RE-AMP Energy Network case studyhave highlighted how effective collaboration can work in these situations. But situations for collaboration do not only include these massive community-wide undertakings. To the contrary, how often do we find ourselves in common group settings where collective decisions need to be made, agreement is needed on a common direction, action needs to be taken, and people need to buy in to make sure stuff happens? We are constantly in such situations within and outside our own organizations, with our colleagues, supervisors, board members, peers, partners, and funders.

Though these are smaller group settings, they arguably reflect significant resources spent across the sector if you add up the number of people multiplied by the number of hours devoted to these meetings. Furthermore, they are arguably critical to get right since this is where decisions are made that set the direction of the organizations and networks whose job it is to tackle our society’s most critical issues and improve lives. Thus, the lack of consistently strong facilitation and group process in these situations reflects a major gap in our sector.

Given this gap, I have become increasingly convinced that investing in strong facilitation and group process is a cost-effective but significant lever that can help make the most of all the energy we put into our various groups. If we agree that collaboration is necessary to achieve our intended outcomes and improving peoples’ lives, we can’t afford not to.

So what would this look like in a practical sense? While good group facilitation is not rocket science, it can be an art and tricky to do well. The good news is we can simply start by paying greater attention and acknowledging whether we are in well-facilitated group situations or not. If not, why not first call it out? We then have options to:

a. Tap into the pool of talented facilitators out there when it makes sense, and/or 
 b. Train to become better facilitators ourselves.

Having the will to make this relatively small investment just might help transform how our groups work and unleash the power of our collective efforts.