As civic leaders our efforts to create vibrant communities—rich in diversity, health, equity, prosperity and sustainability—are challenged by wicked, persistent challenges that are beyond the control of any single entity or even a small group of civic leaders.

For example, educational outcomes within a community are shaped by the performance and interactions of a wide variety of stakeholders from multiple sectors that together make up the “education system,” including students, parents, educators, early-childhood programs, funders (public, private and philanthropic), public school systems, private school systems, individual schools, higher education institutions, etc. No single entity within the system can shape the overall education outcomes within a community. Nor can any stakeholder effectively control the performance or dictate the behavior of any other stakeholder within the system.

This absence of control can be a source of frustration for leaders because we are all trained and accustomed to operating within organizations. Within organizations there are clear lines of authority and established practices and procedures that help us achieve change.

In contrast, within complex systems there are no lines of authority and no one is assigned the responsibility of designing practices and procedures to achieve systems change. Achieving change within complex civic systems that make up our communities is possible, but it is dependent on independent stakeholders within the system agreeing to work together to achieve shared goals. We call such work “cross-sector collaboration.”

Collaboration has been described as an unnatural act among non-consenting adults and one reason that is the case is that so many of our society’s structures, policies and incentives are designed to support organizations and their activities, not the performance of systems. No one works for a system. We all work for an organization. We are all trained in organizational behavior, either explicitly or implicitly. Few leaders are trained in systemic leadership.

Organizational leaders from all sectors must deal with constraints that limit their capacity to engage in cross-sector collaboration. For example, each nonprofit has a defined mission that it must focus on, and rare is the nonprofit with a mission that includes fostering cross-sector collaborations. Public officials often face rules and regulations that limit one governmental agency or jurisdiction from engaging with another; let alone the reality of being responsive to short-term parochial interests of constituents. Corporate leaders probably have even more constraints on their ability to support cross-sector collaborations. Their top priority has to be to the health of the enterprise. And while foundations have the most freedom to support cross-sector collaborations, many of them too have narrow missions or are focused on supporting programmatic activities, rather than supporting the capacity required to achieve the systems change that is at the heart of cross-sector collaboration.

These inherent structural constraints on cross-sector collaboration can be overcome if three conditions are present. These conditions—which I’ve written about at length previously—are (1) compelling cause; (2) galvanizing leadership; and (3) high-performing organizations.

But even if these three conditions are present, collaboration won’t occur through magic. The process of collaboration—engaging with stakeholders, learning together, developing shared understanding, agreeing to shared goals and aligning resources and actions to achieve those goals—is incredibly hard work that needs to be done by someone. Without the capacity to collaborate, the collaboration will not rise above what Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, calls “cobalaboration.” While a made up term, most civic leaders are all too familiar with coblaboration—a process where each meeting has a distinct Groundhog Day feel, opinions rule, data is rare and assigning blame is a higher priority than achieving change.

Advocates for civic change need to also advocate for collaboration capacity to perform key functions, including:

  • Engagement
  • Communications
  • Measurement
  • Advocacy
  • Alignment
  • Facilitation
  • Project coordination.

Proponents of the collaboration framework Collective Impact call such functions “backbone functions.” A collaboration without a backbone devolves quickly into coblaboration.