Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration Part 1: Laying the groundwork for collective action

In the realm of multi-stakeholder collaboration, simplicity is a rare luxury. Bridging diverse interests and goals requires more than just goodwill—it demands a nuanced understanding and a strategic approach. Join us as we kick off a four-part blog series unraveling the complexities and keys to successful multi-stakeholder collaborations.

April 22, 2024

Welcome to the first installment of our four-part series, where we delve into the stimulating and challenging world of multi-stakeholder collaboration. We’re starting at the beginning with the basics, theory (we promise it won’t be boring), challenges, and how/where to begin.

The catalyst for collaboration

What drives a group of stakeholders to come together to collaborate? It’s a belief that something in a system needs to change, and that the necessary change is possible. Multi-stakeholder collaboration involves bringing diverse groups together around a common goal, laying the groundwork for building new structures and systems capable of sustaining the change they seek to create. 

When resources are combined in a different way, it’s possible to get a different and better outcomes. Much of the innovation that flows from successful partnerships comes from the inherent unusualness of their structures and forms. 

The catalyst here is a shared vision of a different future or outcome, and knowing we have to work together to get there.

The beauty of these collaborations lies in the recognition of the complexity and interdependence of each individual system. Whether addressing environmental sustainability, public health, or economic development, multi-stakeholder collaboration is designed to navigate the complexity and transform that interdependence from a challenge into an asset. 

Setting the table

To use an example we’ve used before, imagine a professional kitchen where chefs from varied backgrounds, training, cultures and experiences decide to collaborate to craft a special menu. Despite their different specialties, they must navigate their shared goals without (too many literal or metaphorical) clashes. They need to listen to each other and avoid the pointy ends of knives waving above cutting boards as the work is underway. This analogy mirrors the essence of multi-stakeholder collaboration - diverse groups coming together, each bringing unique insights and experiences, all working together towards a common objective. 

While there are (typically) no pointy knives in multi-stakeholder collaboration, some participants may start off feeling resistant, have negative associations, or even an unacknowledged reluctance to fully contribute to the process. There are always complex relationships involved in this work. To collaborate effectively, everyone needs an opportunity to participate and share their observations, experiences and perspectives.

Complex relationships at play

The process resembles establishing a new organization, but within the framework of a single collaborative entity. It emphasizes perspective and relationships, acknowledging that while the goal is the same, the journey to achieving it requires relationships robust enough to navigate a dynamic system. 

We fervently agree with the common assumption, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts," and in a less cliche way, we like this quote from organizational theory expert Edgar Schein:

"In an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world, we can not hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done."

Real-world applications

We’ve previously spoken of a number of multi-stakeholder collaborations we’ve been involved in, including one in which a rural municipality, an urban city, a post-secondary institution, and a chamber of commerce come together to address labour force trends in their region. 

We’ve worked with industry, government and First Nations communities who have come together to assess an environmental monitoring network. We are currently working with a multi-stakeholder collaboration that is bringing policing, social services, and healthcare together to find innovative avenues to connect individuals in crisis with appropriate support systems.

We hear about multi-stakeholder collaborations on a global stage every day, whether as part of humanitarian relief efforts, peace negotiations (remember my post on the Israel-Hamas conflict?) or climate change conferences.

Not surprisingly, a lot of literature on multi-stakeholder collaboration comes out of United Nations working groups (take a look at their Introduction to Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships).

The expertise behind the scenes

We draw heavily from our training with Sam Kaner, an expert based in California who has decades of experience through his consulting firm/think tank/training centre, Community at Work. Sam has created a structure and a way to think about the complexities of multi-stakeholder groups and their various components. Fundamentally, he thinks realistic strategies and inclusive solutions are possible — even essential to meet the critical challenges our world is facing.

The challenge of collaboration

So, why is collaboration so challenging? If all we have to do is identify a common goal and work together to reach it, collaborating should be easy, right?

Well, it can be. But think about the differences between our professional kitchen, a corporate board of directors, and a local volunteer organization. They all operate with different objectives, cultures, interests, vocabularies, and values. To collaborate successfully, they need to find an approach that meets shared interests and delivers value for all. (It’s unlikely your unique goal will bring together such diverse organizations, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.)

From funding issues to a lack of clear structure and ambiguous decision authorities, many factors can derail these efforts. Yet, the increasing need for collaboration in our interconnected, yet fragmented world is undeniable.

Where to start

Often, a small group of like-minded people sees the possibility of something different. With their energy and influence, they are able to pull together a group of organizations and imagine what that “something different” could be.

The group will spend time identifying what they’re trying to solve, and deciding if a collaborative approach will work. Are the right people coming together? Is multi-stakeholder collaboration the right vehicle? Is there a path to financial support for the collaboration? Is there enough ‘will’ to sustain the collaboration?

As the collaboration formalizes, an important early step is to articulate a shared aspiration, a mission, and a belief about how the collaboration will effect change (a.k.a theory of change). 

This is a critical step - we must begin by creating a logic model, or a “mental map” of the way our collaboration will create change. It’s about understanding how a system interacts and deciding where we intervene within that system to create a different outcome.

Multi-stakeholder collaborations often work on long-term (three, five, 10-year) timelines. System change requires sustained pressure to get different results. 

As facilitators, if we’re lucky enough to be invited early in the process, we’ll work with the group to build an understanding of the current system(s), the players, their interests and the pain points. We also examine the external factors that will have an impact on the process and the goals. 

We build an approach to first establishing the goals/objectives, and a process that will engage everyone in the group in open, productive discussions.

This is exciting and heady work - thrilling and extremely inspiring. This, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg!

Looking ahead

This introduction to multi-stakeholder collaboration sets the stage for more fun in the kitchen. In our following blogs, we will do a deep dive into strategies for clarity and progress, examining the structures, milestones, and methods essential for fostering effective collaboration and tracking progress toward shared goals.

Thanks for following along!

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash.

Written by
Robin Parsons

Robin has more than twenty-five years of experience as an effective leader and strategic thinker. She helps organizations have better conversations that help them work together more effectively.

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Parsons Dialogue is based in Calgary, Canada, serving clients across North America. We design and facilitate strategic processes that help teams collaborate with clarity and confidence.

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