Greatness is a Shared Responsibility: Why Collaboration is Important

This week I was in Detroit for a couple of days wrapping up an assignment we had been working on with the Homeless Action Network of Detroit on Performance Management. On Tuesday, I was making a presentation to the community on the most salient points and recommendations of our final report. What struck me during the delivery of the information was how important it is for greatness to be seen as a shared responsibility.

Want to end homelessness in your community? Not going to happen by one person or one organization. Not going to happen because the Continuum of Care wills it to be so. Not going to happen because external experts were brought in. It is only going to happen if there is a shared responsibility to work on greatness across all organizations, working in collaboration with the CoC, and where necessary, external experts.

The word “collaboration” is an interesting one. Let’s break it down (with apologies to those who have heard me make the same remarks during a keynote or presentation in the last six months or so…).  “Collaboration” comes from the Latin “collaboratus” which means to “labor together” and came to rise in the 1860s after the Industrial Revolution and the organization of labor that resulted from the paradigm shift in the economy. [Aside #1 – while tempted to go on a diversion about social justice and the Chartist movement, I am showing considerable restraint. Aside #2 – “Collaboration” also came to have negative connotations in the 1940s in a treasonable sense, but we’ll park that for now. Aside #3 – methinks these parts of my blogs are perhaps too nerdy for some readers but I can’t help myself.]

To labor together.

Baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel once proclaimed: “Gettin’ good players is easy. Gettin’ ’em to play together is the hard part.”

When I think about Stengel’s quote what immediately comes to mind are all the organizations I have spent time with over the years that have some amazingly talented people working for them – yet that talent seems to work competitively within the organization rather than laboring together to achieve the mission of the organization. Sometimes it feels like different program areas in the same organization pit themselves against each other for no discernible reason.

Thomas Stallkamp, who has had a rather successful career in business and now leads a group called Collaborative Management remarked, “The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.”

Let us agree (please) that the problem we are trying to tackle is homelessness. A lot of work I do in communities is about getting organizations to focus on how the specific strengths of their organization assist in solving that problem. [Aside #4 – I feel somewhat nauseous each time an organization tells me they are the only ones in their community that works with really “hard to serve” or “hard to house” people and they wear it like a badge of courage and one-up-personship. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that all of you work with the really “hard” people that no other organization will work with. Aside #5 – I despise the phrases “hard to house” and “hard to serve” because it blames the people we are funded to serve for their hardship…ever think that maybe it is not that they are hard to house or hard to serve, but rather us that hasn’t offered the right – and dare I say easy – housing or service?]

We need to adjust the conversation towards how the greatness of each of us will be shared towards solving the problem, and how each of us will be responsible for our piece of the puzzle.

Social anthropology, human geography, sociology, history and biology all offer research contributions related to human civilizations and other animals (even some plants) that demonstrate time and again that those groups that have collaborated have prevailed over those that have not. There is sufficient evidence for my liking that if we want to prevail in ending homelessness we are going to have to collaborate…that our greatness in that pursuit is directly linked to us seeing the task as a shared responsibility.

So, let us truly labor together.

Let us all do our piece of work and take responsibility for our contributions.

Let us not send every difficult conversation or complex matter to a sub-committee or on the lap of one or two people, but rather grapple with it – labor through it until a conclusion is reached – together.

Let us team build not just within our organization, but across our community.

Let us train together to reach a common understanding of effective approaches.

Let us appreciate the strength of our diversity as we labor together – that “difference” is not de facto synonymous with “worse”.

Let us each contribute our talents collectively for the goal of ending homelessness.

Let us appreciate that some of us will always be smarter than one of us.

Let us banish thoughts that “collectivism” is somehow a weakness and embrace strength inherent with many passionate contributors to a great social issue.

Let us encourage a culture of inter-dependence across homeless and housing organizations so that they work as an integrated system, not a collection of projects or independent services operating in silos.

Let us not be afraid of the good debate as we labor together, grounding our opinions in fact instead of fiction or opinion.

Greatness is a shared responsibility. It requires us to labor together.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong