Sarah Owen definitely knows a thing or two about collaboration. As president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, she’s helped bring together members of the local business, education and nonprofit communities to work on transforming the region’s workforce through the FutureMakers Coalition. She also worked in partnership with the City of Fort Myers to open the Collaboratory, a space where various stakeholders can come together to find solutions to pressing local problems.
“I think there are very few big issues that can be solved by one single entity,” she says. “Usually the best solutions come from diverse voices, lots of different input and the ability for people to work together.”
But a true collaboration can sometimes be hard to achieve. “I will say the concept isn’t rocket science, but the actualization of it feels like it is,” says Owen.
That’s why we spoke with Owen recently to get her tips and advice for collaborating in the most meaningful and impactful way.
Understand what collaborating actually means. “Sometimes we mistake collaboration for other things,” says Owen. “A lot of times people say they’re going to collaborate on something and get together once a month and have breakfast. But that’s just getting together once a month to have breakfast; that isn’t collaboration. Collaboration is the highest level of partnership.”
Set a common goal. For collaboration to achieve meaningful results, all members of the team must be working toward the same objective and be willing to measure and analyze their progress and achievements.
“It’s really about, ‘What is that common thing we’re trying to solve for?’” says Owen. “It requires an agreement that that goal is the most important thing, and it overrides any individual agenda that we have or any individual getting their feelings hurt. Keeping that goal at the forefront is really critical.”
Don’t expect immediate results. “I always tell people to go slow at first, then go fast later,” says Owen. “We tend to want it to almost magically work, but it takes a lot of time. It doesn’t happen quickly. You have to invest time in it in order for it to work.”
Owen has seen that firsthand through her involvement with the FutureMakers Coalition. “That coalition is seven years old and it’s just starting to really hit its stride,” she says. “Relationships take time to develop. A lot of times, it’s better to get aligned around an idea first. Then maybe forge some more official partnerships, and then really dive into this idea of collaboration, rather than trying to start with that from the beginning.”
Invest in the infrastructure. Owen says that a successful collaboration needs to have an entity serving as the backbone or anchor.
“Collaboration requires someone calling the meetings, checking in and managing all the communications that stem from the collaboration, so that people are staying connected with each other,” she says. “People are all about investing in a program or big idea, but our tendency is to not want to invest in that infrastructure. But then how are we going to make sure it stays healthy? Who are the people who will hold that collaboration together when the going gets tough?”
Embrace diversity. Finding solutions to issues that impact a certain demographic or geographic area requires input from thought leaders as well as the people actually affected by an issue.
“Sometimes we have a tendency around collaboration to call the people we know because we know they’re going to show up,” says Owen. “But if you look around the table and everyone is someone you know, you’re probably missing someone for sure. Sometimes we get used to going to the people we know because we don’t know who else to ask. But just reach out; just make the ask.”
Be open to new ideas. A diverse selection of voices means you’ll get different ideas for solutions to the problem at hand, including approaches that might have never even crossed your mind otherwise.
“Anytime you’re going to work on anything with more than just yourself, come into it with a mentality of a learner and listener,” says Owen. “I think that anytime you have people working together, you get different skill sets. What one person can bring to the table might be something someone else lacks.”
Stay invested. Because collaborations take time, it’s easy to get discouraged along the way.
“Our tendency is to leave that collaborative table too soon because someone makes us upset or we don’t like the way it’s going,” says Owen. “Stay at the table; stick in there and be at it for the long haul.”