Want to save the world? One way to do it is to learn how to collaborate.
Last June, the president of the University of Virginia, Terry Sullivan, was fired. It was a big mistake -- a decision made in haste by some trustees who failed to think through the consequences of their action. Many of us who love UVA were appalled. We could have just stood by, complaining to one another. Instead, we took action. Thousands of students, alumni, faculty, administration, and staff stood up together and sent a single, clear message: "Bring her back!"
Ten days later, Dr. Sullivan was returned to office. Today UVA is healthier than ever before, with an unprecedented array of constituents working together to mold a new and even more vibrant institution. That's the power of collaboration.
For decades, well-meaning people and organizations struggled to solve the problem of malaria in Africa, which killed more than a million people a year, half of them children under the age of five. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent without much to show for it. Then a group led by several key parties, including Ray Chambers, the UN Secretary General's Malaria Envoy, pulled together a coalition of businesses, local governments, multi-lateral organizations, universities, UN agencies, foundations, non-profits, and individuals to lead the effort. Now malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa have fallen from 1.2 million a year to approximately 550,000, with the goal of zero deaths by 2015 realistically within reach. Collaboration made it happen.
Are these success stories one-offs, unique and impossible to duplicate? Not necessarily. Today the art of collaboration is being studied by a number of universities as well advisors such as the consulting firm FSG [http://www.fsg.org]. They're discovering that "large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations." In other words, collaboration may be the key to making the world a better place.
Even more important, successful collaboration isn't just a happy accident. It's the result of specific factors that can be recognized and duplicated. They include:
1. Agreement on a simple, measureable goal that everyone can understand and rally around. The global malaria initiative, for example, rallied supporters around the goal of "cutting deaths from malaria through the use of insecticide-treated bed nets." By contrast, some of those concerned about global warming have succeeded only in scaring millions of people without providing them with clear, actionable steps to take.
2. Leadership from an honest broker. In the malaria case, it was Ray Chambers, a trusted individual known and respected throughout the world health community. The role of honest broker requires someone with a managed ego, good listening skills, passion for the cause, a large network, and a history of collaborative successes. Business leaders in search of a second career are often great candidates, while politicians, academics, and physicians rarely qualify
3. Commitment from a small number of key organizations. Other organizations will fall in line once the coalition has five or six credible participants.
4. A small group of individuals who provide the "collaborative glue" of continual communication. For malaria, a small office team was established to track the collaboration's goals, flag problems, and focus senior-level attention where necessary.
Where can you find such people? During my tenure as an executive in residence at the Harvard Business School (HBS), I got to know many MBAs who want to work on the big issues of the day, from education and health care to global warming and human trafficking. I also met numerous alumni building second careers in which their goal is to help the world. These two groups, at opposite ends of their careers, are natural collaborators, and schools like HBS offer a perfect venue for them to find one another and support projects.
5. A measurement and evaluation system to keep the project on track. The African Leaders Malaria Alliance publishes a progress-tracking chart that 42 African leaders and their health ministers review every four months.
Some of the world-changing collaborative efforts already under way include the SUN movement to improve nutrition in 33 countries operating in 33 states to support children from cradle to career; the MDG Health Alliance, working to reduce child deaths by half and maternal deaths by two-thirds; and the Oceans Legacy Project, setting up protected fisheries to provide environmentally sustainable food resources. Each of these partnerships is a multi-stakeholder collaboration attacking issues that no one group can solve alone.
The opportunities for collaborative problem-solving in today's world are almost unlimited. Here are some that are crying out for attention:
• The United Nations' New Millennium Development Goals. With the current goals set to be accomplished by the end of 2015, the UN and the Brookings Institute are now working to set new goals for post-2015 implementation. While the current debate is what these new goals should be, shouldn't there also be a discussion about successful models that can be used to achieve them? The malaria effort offers an example from which we can learn.
• Creative Investment in Social Enterprises. I'm involved in New Profit, an organization launched by 40 families to connect donor knowledge and networks with New Profit's active management experience. It enhances the odds of success of nonprofits as shown by its involvement in Teach for America, the KIPP Schools, Year Up and many others. How can this collaborative model be used to attract even more resources to the social enterprises that are tackling some of today's biggest challenges?
• University Governance. With today's desperate need for new models for higher education, collaboration among faculty, alumni, administration, boards, staff, community, and students is more critical. Yet some university boards are clinging to old, for-profit and chairman/CEO-driven governance models that don't work well in multi-stakeholder environments. Could an "Office of Collaboration" led by an honest broker help ensure that collaborative opportunities in the schools are maximized?
• U.S. and Local Governments. Politicians and civil servants can't solve our biggest challenges on their own. Who are the honest brokers that can pull together key multi-stakeholder collaborations to tackle problems like energy, health care, and education? How do we apply these strategies to the village, towns and cities of the world?
We still have a lot to learn about how to create long-lasting, cross-cutting, highly effective collaborations. New models are being devised and tested every day. But there's no doubt that collaboration will be key to the future survival and success of humankind. Today would be a great day for you to join us all.
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