Collaboration – moving our attention to the spaces in between

Reflections and learning
5th November 2015


This is the third in a series of four posts capturing my thoughts and experiences while engaging with the U Lab programme Transforming Business, Society and Self.

Guided by the U Lab process I’ve been reflecting on how leaders are supported in their organisational and service change work. Hosting a Hub at the Melting Pot on ‘Sustaining the Change Makers’ has meant I’ve engaged with the process at deeper level than I might have. It’s certainly encouraged me to think differently.

Navigating the System

In Scotland much of the success in public service reform will lie in the ability of leaders, teams and individuals to work collaboratively across the sectors to build more equal, enabled and resilient communities. 

 Systems’ thinking tells us that the implicit role of the system is to maintain the status quo. Corporate governance arrangements, while important for public accountability, can become overly concerned with protecting the interests of the organisation militating against their ability to collaborate with external partners.

Ambivalence can result. Senior leaders know they have to collaborate but cultural norms and accountabilities get in the way.

Middle managers receive mixed messages and are left to navigate the turbulent waters of collaboration. 

Oshry in his book Seeing Systems doesn’t mince his words: 

Tops are burdened by what feels like unmanageable complexity…… Middles are torn and confused between the conflicting demands and priorities….”

Sound familiar?

Complex systems such as health and social care comprise a myriad of organisations – large public sector bodies, smaller private and third sector entities and social enterprises. They have similar aims but remain distinct and separate partly because of funding arrangements and the need to account to their boards.

People naturally identify with their own organisation’s cultural norms. But overallegiance can make it difficult to be open to the differences of others. 

Leaders tend to draw external partners into their own organisational frame and view the objective of collaboration from that perspective. If this frame is too fixed, barriers, blockages and stalemates abound. 

The space in between

Imagine though if systems were made up of semi-permeable ‘organisms’ with spaces between.

Rather than looking outwards from within the boundary of our organisation, what if we travelled to the spaces in between? Virtually at least and maybe even physically?

Rumi’s quote articulates the opportunities better than I can:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.  I will meet you there”.

If we moved our attention to these spaces how might it change the way we relate?

The Public Service Reform Scotland Act 2010 goes some way towards making collaboration across organisations and sectors easier. But that’s only the mechanics. It’s the relational dimensions that need attention now. The quality of the conversations.

We need to create safe spaces for these conversations to take place. Vehicles such as U Lab are taking us in the right direction but it’s only the beginning……  

Other blogs in this series :

U Lab Scotland – Conversations and Catching Waves 

U Lab Reflections at the Turn of the U

Other posts of interest: