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Lessons of Collaborative Project Leadership: Potholes And Wrong Turns in Public Services For At-Risk Communities

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

By Sidney Gardner and Larisa Owen
November 10, 2019

In working across the United States, we have had the privilege and challenge of operating with many leaders of collaborative teams. Observing their successes and challenges enables us to identify some lessons drawn from their rich experience.

Often, leadership studies are stated in abstract, even idealistic, terms: “Leaders should,” or, “Leaders ought to…” Yet a deeper understanding of leadership comes from examining how collaborative leadership goes off-course, hits bumps and potholes and misses key turns. Identifying problems and barriers that collaborative leaders face provides a much needed balance with a less specific approach that ignores the obstacles and focuses on vague, abstract language.

Leadership matters greatly in organizational change. It includes a blend of at least three ingredients: facilitative, relationship-building skills; data/accountability skills; and communications/persuasion skills. No one leader necessarily possesses all three, but a state, local or tribal collaborative team must collectively bring these to the collaborative table.

Problems And Barriers That Collaborative Leaders Face

Time: Leaders in collaborative settings face an unending time allocation problem that can be summed up as inside-outside. How much time should be devoted to organizational maintenance in the day-to-day tasks of the collaborative? How much time should they spend with senior partners of the collaborative vs. external agencies and sources of influence outside the agency?

Too much internal time may weaken ties to needed resources from external referral agencies and the ability to monitor the policy environments affecting the collaborative. Too much external time may give staff a sense that the leader is ignoring the realities of clients’ needs and available services in favor of continuing meetings with outsiders. A collaborative leader whose role is part-time—either because the funding requires it or because the leader has been given other responsibilities outside the collaborative project—is likely to find that they simply do not have the time required to carry out the above tasks.

Building relationships with partners, external agencies, front-line staff and potential funders, while reviewing the project data in enough depth to know what is happening, are tasks that all take time. Squeezing in other duties beyond the collaborative tasks will inevitably short-change the collaborative and cost credibility with both partners and staff.

Practice vs. Policy: A related tendency is for collaboratives to select practice changes over policy changes—because they are usually easier and demand less of the systems. An agreement to refer is merely a practice change. It only becomes policy when partners sign on to specific shared outcomes for which agencies will hold themselves responsible and measure their efforts against well-accepted baselines.

Referrals without accountability for services merely send clients somewhere else, without any assurance that they are better off or that the service was effective. The tendency of organizations working together in an interagency network is to select pilot projects that do not work at scale or fail to challenge established rules and norms across the whole system. This may marginalize collaboration.

Working at pilot scale may be an appropriate beginning point, but longer-term issues of institutionalization, sustainability and replication must be raised early in the process, or a limited project-level perspective will dominate the collaborative’s efforts and diminish its impact. The perceived and actual barriers to significant changes in policy at times leads members of a partnership to focus their efforts on marginal changes in practice, which the collaborative treats as major in order to claim success. The task is to urge an assessment of how substantial these changes really are, compared with clear baselines.

Escaping a  pilot project mentality requires replicating and institutionalizing practice changes to evolve into systems changes throughout an agency. At times organizations tolerate and insulate themselves from innovation with fragmented projects that leave systems essentially unchanged.

Importance of Front-line Staff: Troublesome distance sometimes exists between front-line staff and the senior partners in a collaborative, which can result in the leader blaming the partners or the front-line staff for problems that are rarely discussed. Without some mechanism for connecting the day-to-day realities of front-line practice with the wider overview of senior policy leaders, the two sets of actors may suspect each other of missing the point, or delaying action on needed changes.

A collaborative leader enables and encourages breaking down this gap, rather than perpetuating it. An attitude of, “Barrier-busting,” can help break down this gap, by signaling to front-line staff that they should identify the barriers they encounter—and to senior policy leaders that it is their responsibility to see which of those barriers can be reduced or eliminated. If no such dialogue is taking place, each group may come to see the other as the source of the problem—or may blame the leader.

This also requires a leader who is comfortable asking staff about barriers, rather than only celebrating successes. Explicit barrier analysis can feel overly negative to some staff and partners, but without it, the collaborative risks a, “Happy talk,” atmosphere in which only good news is shared and problems are disguised, ignored or not recognized. Finally, feedback from staff is critical. Without that feedback, leadership is making decisions without clearly understanding what is actually happening with clients.

For more discussion on potential bumps that collaborative leaders might encounter in the road to success, look out for our next installment in part 2.


Sidney Gardner is president of the Center for Children and Family Futures, where he leads the knowledge management functions, closely tracking trends, legislation, funding and contextual events that impact the organization’s work. With more than 50 years of experience working with government agencies, educational institutions and public policy organizations, he specializes in the development of strategies that facilitate and enhance communication and collaboration across agencies. Gardner is the author of Beyond Collaboration to Results and Cities, Counties, Kids and Families: the Essential Role of Local Government. He can be reached at [email protected]

Larisa Owen has been program director with the Center for Children and Family Futures since 2004. There, she serves as veterans and special projects program director, leading veterans and military families projects across the organization. She is co-chair of the Children and Families subcommittee working group of the Orange County Veterans and Military Families Collaborative and member of the California State Military Reserve. Owen has held senior management roles in corporate and nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at [email protected]

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