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Effective Collaboration and the Familiar Stranger

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
November 7, 2021

The challenges faced by public administrators are often complex, rarely ending at the edges of our agencies. Complex challenges often require that we collaborate extensively with those from other fields, agencies or governments if we are to succeed. Knowing this, many agencies stress the importance of networking, supporting opportunities for their employees to interact with others. However, though this networking environment is far richer than it has been in decades past, problems still arise. We continue finding instances of individuals not sharing the right information with the right people at the right time. Perhaps we need to expand our practice of networking, focusing more on identifying and having dialogues with familiar strangers than simply on interacting with others.

Swiss sociologist Georg Simmel introduced the concept of the Stranger in the early 20th century. He described the stranger as someone who might have the information or skills needed to successfully address a challenge we face, but we are unaware of who they are or how to engage them. We know they exist, but not where. In the 1970s, American psychologist Stanley Milgram introduced the Familiar Stranger. He suggested that these are people we see regularly, but do not interact with. These are people with whom we have a limited, fragmented relationship. For example, consider those in the workplace you see regularly. You might nod and say hello, but not otherwise engage. You see them in meetings or virtual conferences, but they are simply a “face” you do not interact with in a meaningful manner. In fact, you are hesitant to do so, concerned with breaking the norm of the existing limited relationship. Interestingly, while hesitant to engage in the usual setting, if you encountered them in some distant location, even if outside of a work situation, you would be more likely to engage with them than with strangers. There is a relationship, but it is superficial at best.

Explained like this, the concept of familiar stranger seems clear, but it is surprising we do so little to find these familiar strangers in our professional lives. We interact with many in our own teams, or in committees, task forces or other combinations, but may not really know them. There is an artificial intimacy making us believe we do, but it is more a shadow of a true relationship. More importantly in the context of work, we do not necessarily know what they know, what they do, what resources they control or what information they possess which might be helpful to our efforts or how we might support them in return. This can contribute to sub-optimal outcomes for all. There are two simple approaches towards knowing the familiar strangers in our own agencies.

Agency Resource Matrix: This might be the most practical, most approachable means for many agencies. It might be achieved through the creation of a simple, accessible data system. We often see something similar in organizations which catalog language skills present in the organization which might be useful at some point. The practice could be expanded to identify roles, functions, resources, special skills, certifications, licensures or professional networks which might be of value in achieving organizational goals. In essence, it is like your neighbor putting a sign in their front yard stating which of their possessions you might “borrow.”

Round Robins: This approach might be the most effective and substantive for many agencies. Many years ago, I was onboarding a new analyst into the organization who had no experience within the specific field, though she had strong credentials and experience as an analyst in other public agencies. I arranged for her to meet with all senior project and program leaders within our agency to understand what they did, how, what challenges they faced and who they interacted with or reported to in each function. This helped her rapidly develop a robust understanding of the formal and informal structures, relationships and communication channels comprising the fabric of the organization’s leadership and management. This facilitated her ability to reach out to others, or to connect them, based upon their specialized knowledge and resources.

These might seem to be simplistic approaches—they are. The simplest way to know someone is to introduce yourself, changing a stranger to a neighbor. If we can learn to do this in our professional lives, knowing more about those we work with, especially in larger, complex, geographically separated workplaces with high levels of specialization, we are more likely to be able to access the right information, the right resources and the right skills when we need them. This can provide for more effective, more efficient and more fruitful outcomes for us, our organizations and our communities.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is an HR training and development consultant, a retired public administrator, an independent scholar, and serves as Senior Doctoral Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He may be reached at [email protected].

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