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Why must we reinvent the wheel when conducting collaborative change projects? Kathleen O’Brien, LEED AP, CSBA and Yvonne Kraus, LEED AP, CSBA Responds.

KathleenOBrien-web Yvonne-web At the Washington State Boundary Review Board for Kitsap County annual conference this past September, Kathleen sat on a panel with Art Castle, Executive Vice President of the Kitsap Home Builders Association, and Dave Tucker (Director, Surface and Stormwater Management, Kitsap County) to discuss the highly successful collaborative process used to develop the Kitsap LID Implementation Standards. The project made history because the work product developed through the process was unanimously adopted by Kitsap County and all four Cities within the County — something that hasn't happened in recent memory. (This blog published an interview with Art Castle on this project on April 7, 2010.) Panel Moderator and Resource Conservation Manager Katherine Morgan said: "You need to write an article in your blog on an effective collaborative process!"

Anyone who’s ever conducted a project where the point is for groups of individuals or organizations to change the course of their everyday practice and/or business – that’s everyone who is seriously working in the field of sustainability – knows that ownership of the work product is absolutely key.

You can’t simply plop down a program, plan, or policy that another group has developed and expect a stakeholder group to adopt it wholesale. A true collaborative process must take place. And that means you can’t predict what the product of that process will be. And that means that to some degree you must allow for “re-inventing the wheel” — as taboo as this concept might seem in a society that focuses on “uber” efficiency. Efficient isn’t necessarily effective!

Does this mean that we have to start from ground zero every single time? No, but we do need to allow room for the reality of what it takes to create real social change.   Kathleen asked Yvonne Kraus to join her in providing O’Brien & Company's top ten tips for effective collaborative change projects:

Copy (2) of PICT0157 1. Include Everyone. Make sure everyone who has a stake in the process is represented at the table, and that everyone knows why and what they are expected to contribute. This means holding orientation conversations with individuals you are inviting to the table before stakeholder meetings take place. It may mean paying extra attention to individuals who are likely to contribute unpopular views or minority opinions. Hear them out, identify what their issues concerns are, and design a collaborative process that leverages discussions of these concerns as opportunities to expand perspectives and open minds (including yours!). Be prepared to coach your stakeholders from time to time during the process itself. In the photo, Kathleen is facilitating a pre-design workshop for the Building Industry Association's Construction Training Center for the Pacific in Honolulu, HI.

2. Manage Expectations. Be clear how much authority and scope you can offer your stakeholder group. If they think they are going to approve the collaborative work product, but legally they can only provide input, they need to know this right up front! If your budget only permits you to tweak an existing deliverable, you need to tell them this as well. (But be prepared to let them tweak to the fullest extent of your resources!) If you’ve just finished a process that you don’t want to reopen with this one, let them know.

3. Build a foundation for consensus and compromise. In your orientation discussions, you should be able to identify common concerns that could lead to common solutions. For real change to occur, it helps to get all parties behind one or two items that are really important to them. There may be other aspects the stakeholders are less consistently supportive of, but may be willing to compromise over, if these key items are addressed successfully.  And don’t assume you know why someone is resisting change. It may be for reasons you are totally unaware of, and perhaps for one that is more easily resolved than the problem you are imagining.

4. Plan and Prepare Thoroughly. Meeting preparation and follow-through will convey to your stakeholders how much you value their contribution of time and energy. Provide clear agendas that include a statement of the meeting's purpose and desired outcome. Meeting handouts or visual materials should correlate with the agenda so participants can easily map their progress. Have the meeting room set up in plenty of time before your participants arrive. Provide a warm welcome. Follow the maxim: "A good meeting begins on time and ends on time." And, plan a process that “fits” your stakeholder group. (This should be easy, since your orientation process, described in #1 should help you determine the nature of your stakeholder group.) Make sure any presentations are aimed at your audience’s general level of understanding, and that interactive exercises (such as icebreakers) will be inviting rather than off-putting. It may feel like overkill, but setting ground rules is never a wasted exercise. Having a few rules to start with and asking to complete the list is a great way to get a "read" on how the group will interact as a group before you get into content.

5. But, be flexible. Your stakeholder group may come up with a better solution (and process) than what you had in mind! In the Kitsap LID project mentioned above, the first meeting of the Leadership Team identified a different (and even better) way to organize the work. We took a break from the next monthly meeting to allow for planning and preparation, and then restarted the process. The Leadership Team was content knowing they were heard. They owned the process and in the end, they owned the product!

6. Use a knowledgeable facilitator. We’ve observed processes where the facilitator was significantly more focused on getting everyone heard then on getting to a solution. Perhaps they didn’t know enough about the content area to move things along. So annoying. A facilitator with content expertise can help make gentle course corrections. You'll want to make sure, however, that the facilitator has enough ego strength to provide functional leadership without manipulating or dominating the discussion.

7. Encourage full engagement. If someone or several some ones (a very bad sign) shut down by remaining silent or withdrawing from the process, hit pause and find out what's going on. Make sure the facilitator provides a number of different methods for drawing your participants into the dialogue or activity.

Community meeting 9-30-10 012 8. Educate everybody. No collaborative process is worth a grain of salt unless it leaves the stakeholders more knowledgeable. This knowledge gives them the confidence to be cheerleaders later when the work product is completed, and helps them create a better result in the first place. We like to bring in peers from other organizations or jurisdictions that can provide information about how they completed a similar project with lessons learned as well as content experts who can present information on specific topics in non-technical terms. Don’t forget the stakeholders themselves. Besides asking them what their informational needs are at the outset of the process, find out who has special areas of expertise and can contribute to the general body of knowledge. Include them in the agenda as presenters. This can be especially helpful if they are opinion leaders. And, you’ll find that most stakeholders (even those who hated school) love learning when it’s presented in a way that helps them do their job better or improve their life. (They may even volunteer for the next stakeholder process!) In the photo, you see stakeholders, invited content experts including King County’s Tom Watson, and residents at a recent City of Sammamish Community Workshop for planning the City’s Sustainability Strategy. This particular breakout group is focused on strategies for waste reduction and recycling.

Kitsaplid 9. Keep things moving. If you have the luxury of time, spread your meetings out just enough for your participants to digest the information and process as you go — but not much more. You don't want to lose momentum. If you do need to take a significant break (which can happen when you’re preparing the final deliverable), keep participants apprised and excited with updates and content-related announcements, such as seminars on the topic they might be interested in attending. If you’ve set up a website for your project (a good idea) keep it active between meetings. The Kitsap LID website offered a presence during the project and continues to be an outreach tool for the Kitsap Home Builders Foundation on the subject of LID.

Community meeting 9-30-10 002  10. Take care of your stakeholders and celebrate! With education you feed your stakeholders’ minds, but don't forget their bodies and souls! Take restorative breaks with yummy, healthy food, lots of water, fresh air and light. Make sure each session with your stakeholders represents a milestone that is obvious and take the time celebrate it! They'll thank you for it. And of course, thank them, every chance you get. At the City of Sammamish Community Workshop, the Staff put together a basket (see photo) containing local, healthy goodies for a raffle held at the end of the session. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Kathleen O'Brien, Editor of Building Capacity Blog, and President of O'Brien & Company, and Yvonne Kraus, Program Manager of O'Brien & Company have facilitated scores of meetings, workshops, and charrettes focused on sustainability in their professional careers. Yvonne leads the company's strategic plans, programs, and policies team. Among other professional credentials, she has multiple certifications in group process including: Design Charrette Planning and Facilitation, Group Facilitation Methods, and Public Facilitation. The company also provides services in green building consulting and education, all in the name of promoting sustainability of the built environment.  Kathleen also wants to acknowledge that the top ten tips reflects many lessons learned along side our wonderful clients and stakeholders!

Did you enjoy this article?  You might also like these Building Capacity Blog articles: 
Creating Effective Energy Efficiency & Conservation Strategies Part 1
Green Building Public Education: Writing to Make a Difference
How Can Communities Accelerate Change Towards Green Building?
Interview with King County Green Tool’s Patti Southard
Interview with City of Shoreline’s Juniper Nammi
Clarifying the IDP: ANSI Gets an Overhaul

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