April 04, 2020

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Finding the Dots: Why Collaborate When We Have Nothing In Common?

When the problem is intractable, systemic and locked-in, it’s the very people you think you are in competition with who you need to listen to with the closest attention and the most open mind.


By Penny Walker

Part of the DōShorts series

Why would you want to sit down and listen to the people who have been getting in the way of your efforts to reach your sustainability goals? Because they are the very people who can help you the most.

Let me explain.

One organization --however committed, powerful or smart -- working alone can't solve the biggest sustainability problems. It’s not just a question of scale. Some problems are structural: they are locked in to the relationships we have with each other and the natural world. 

When It's All Not up To You

For example, if you want to make a building more energy efficient that may take some investment. Often, that investment needs to come from the building owner. If the owner pays the monthly energy bills, there is no incentive for the tenants to use less. If the tenants foot the bills, there is no incentive for the landlord to invest, turning this into a classic ‘split incentive’.

There are other structural problems as well, like the ‘tragedy of the commons.'

Take water, for example. If you have an area of land where anyone can sink a well and draw underground water, it is perfectly rational for everyone to take as much as they need (and more). As the water level falls, each well yields a little less but it continues to make sense for each person to take the water they need. After all, one person holding back isn’t going to stop the problem. So everyone carries on as normal until the underground water runs dry, at which point everyone suffers. 

You may not be in competition with your neighbors for water, or wanting to get one over on your landlord, but perhaps you just can’t see eye to eye with someone who has a completely different worldview.

Like this: A conservation group wants to protect fish and their ecosystems. A fish processor wants to expand its business by selling more fish. Their organizational missions and the things they value are Working Collaboratively: DoShortsapparently in conflict. What possible benefit could there be in collaborating?  

It’s hard to find the desired outcomes that they have in common. But the alternative is worse. Soaring energy bills and emissions. Dry wells. Empty seas.

Locked In: Collaborating With Competitors

When the problem is intractable, systemic and locked-in, it’s the very people you think you are in competition or conflict with who you need to listen to with the closest attention and the most open mind.

And it can work!

The Marine Stewardship Council came about when the World Wildlife Fund [WWF] and Unilever recognized that they both wanted high and sustainable fish populations, albeit for different reasons. After bringing together a diverse bunch of NGOs, small and large fishing businesses, retailers and consumer groups, the Council was born. There are now around 19,500 different seafood products on sale worldwide that display the MSC’s distinctive blue-fish-tick label. 

The Sustainable Shipping Initiative is yet another global collaboration, which includes ship builders, owners and companies that charter freight ships. One of its first projects is to explore sharing the financial benefits of innovations in fuel efficiency to overcome the split incentives.

Water companies want the drinking water they supply to meet legal standards. England’s Environment Agency similarly wants rivers and streams to contain fewer chemical contaminants. Farmers want to increase crop yields from their land. But fertilizers used on farms leach into water. Collaboration between water companies, farmers and regulators in England – all of whom want to minimize fertilizer loss from farms, albeit for very different reasons - has reduced nitrate contamination in test catchments [Catchment management: managing water, managing land. Wessex Water, 2011].

Overcoming Inhibition

With hindsight, you can easily see how there are common - or at least complementary – interests between these otherwise unlikely partners. But finding them in the first place can be hard.

It can take a lot of coaxing to persuade people understandably wary to even enter into a polite conversation, which doesn’t lead to action. They may not see their link to the problem or feel that you are blaming them. And they may assume that it is a win-lose situation, where solving your problem inevitably means creating a problem for themselves.

There are dead-ends when it turns out that people support an outcome in principle but aren’t in a position to do anything to help achieve it. And even when people can see that there might be a dead endwin-win, the partnership can remain elusive.

There are some tried and tested ways to help potential collaborators through this marshy journey, and as a facilitator I have worked with a lot of groups to help them avoid the quicksand.

Mostly though it boils down to some simple guidelines:

  • Assume there’s a win-win solution, even if you haven’t found it yet.
  • Assume good intentions, even if you can’t work out what they are.
  • Ask questions which help people tell you more about what matters to them and why.
  • Listen really well. And if you don’t agree, listen louder.
  • Treat disagreement with curiosity rather than hostility or fear.

Try it. You may discover that you have more in common than you think.

About the Author:

Penny Walker [@penny_walker_sd] is an independent facilitator and sustainability consultant. This article draws on her latest book Working Collaboratively: A Practical Guide to Achieving More. CSRwire readers can use code CSR15 to save 15% on Penny's book or any other 90-minute read in the DōShorts Sustainable Business Collection.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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