Bringing together planners and the water sector to explore alternative management solutions for complex urban water issues can be both challenging and rewarding.
Our work with the Brabham Action Learning Partnership is a recent example of a multi-stakeholder collaboration dealing with a complex planning problem in action. Across four workshops with government and industry practitioners, the collaboration focused on how to collectively navigate and influence planning approval processes, to facilitate site-responsive approaches to integrated water solutions. We learnt a lot about collaboration through an evaluation of the partnership program. These insights offer some transferable lessons for collaborative projects and online engagements seeking to advance an innovation agenda.
Here, we present five lessons from Brabham to help inform the design and implementation of multi-stakeholder collaborations. If you’d like more detail and concrete examples from Brabham, download our newly released report, Brabham Action Learning Partnership: Case report.
Five lessons from Brabham on multi-stakeholder collaborations
- Diagnose your context: Before commencing a collaboration, commit some time and effort to understanding how the current context may affect the ability to collaborate, and hence the likelihood of achieving desired outcomes through collaboration. This includes understanding how external operating conditions (like the state of the property market, current political agendas etc.) may influence the appetite for, and therefore the timing of, collaboration. Clearly defining the problem being investigated, and identifying the roles and interests of influential players is also key. Understanding this context can help you set up a collaboration in a way that encourages greater participation and ongoing commitment, and therefore improves the likelihood of success.
- Develop and align goals: Establish clear, shared goals and expectations for the collaboration, including what collaborators will (and will not) collectively pursue and achieve. Uniting stakeholder efforts must produce benefits for all. In other words, each stakeholder must have a clear advantage to gain from collaboration, which they could not achieve alone. But it is also important for collaborative processes to recognise and appropriately manage all the different drivers so that no individual agenda supersedes, dominates or derails the overall purpose of the collaboration.
As well as being diverse, goals can change over time. So, collaborators need to expect goals to evolve as the collaboration progresses, and recognise that any renegotiation should involve all collaborators. Otherwise, you risk losing ongoing commitment and support for the collaboration.
- Get broad stakeholder representation: Make sure all stakeholders are appropriately represented throughout the collaboration to broaden the group’s understanding of multiple perspectives and capture cross-organisational learnings.
Where a collaboration spans a few months, encourage members to consistently attend and contribute throughout the process so the group can make decisions and take actions. This ongoing commitment will ensure continuity. Of course, collaborations often demand significant time and energy, so it is important to clarify and manage expectations about roles and responsibilities early in the process. Clarify the time and work commitments within both the formal stages of a collaboration (e.g. meetings or workshops) and the interactions and activities that happen between these formal stages (e.g. internal briefings, review of technical assessments), to progress collaboration goals. It’s best if the management of each stakeholder organisation empowers their representatives to actively participate in the collaboration by approving and supporting their time commitment.
- Create safe spaces for interaction: Design collaborative platforms to enable honest and meaningful discussions, and build relationships. This requires interactions to foster trust and respect, inclusive language, and independent and experienced facilitators to lead the collaboration.
- Get clear on process and agenda: Organise collaborative processes through a clear and logical framework, guided by a learning agenda. One way of structuring the collaborative activities is to establish an ‘organising framework’ that outlines clear, practical steps or stages. Each stage should have a specific purpose, connected to the collaboration’s overarching vision or goal. As the collaboration progresses, clearly demonstrate how the group is progressing against these goals.
A benchmarking exercise at the beginning of the collaboration and then again at the end is a useful way of assessing whether change has occurred. During the life of the collaboration, leaders should regularly communicate progress by updating collaborators on where they are in the process and where they are heading, what they’ve achieved, how the outcomes from the last stage are being carried through to the next stage, and how this fits into or relates back to the collaboration’s broader vision or goal.
Timing of stages is also important. Collaborators need enough time between each stage to progress the goals, undertake agreed actions, and carry out more targeted engagement to tackle discrete issues. Strike a balance between structured group discussions and space for free-flowing ideation. Since a collaboration will involve different personality types, offer a range of interactive forums to suit various personalities so you don’t isolate and disengage some collaborators.
Finally, purposefully design your collaboration with a learning agenda in mind. Research shows that system-wide change requires social or collective learning; changing current practices relies on processes in which stakeholders can interact and develop shared values and understandings, which in turn form the basis for joint future action.
If you’d like to learn more about how the Brabham Action Learning Partnership tackled its multi-stakeholder collaboration and the outcomes it achieved, download our newly released Brabham Action Learning Partnership: Case report.