Friday, March 13, 2015

Let's Get Together, Better: Rethinking Collaboration at SXSWedu 2015

Until Thursday afternoon, my coworker Vanessa and I were in Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest Education Conference, SXSWedu. Vanessa and my supervisor had submitted a proposal for a Core Conversation way back when, but due to my supervisor's being on maternity leave, I stepped in. Our topic was collaborations, and doing them better, so I was excited to co-facilitate the session and get to enjoy the rest of the conference besides.

So, collaborations. That's a topic we talk about all the time, right? Probably true, but especially since moving to Skokie and seeing how they do things with an entire department dedicated to community engagement, and with some of the reading I've been doing on my own, I'm recognizing that collaborations can be so much more than they typically are for public libraries and other community partners with education, literacy, etc. as an aim.

That's where Vanessa, the library's graphic designer, comes in. Vanessa has experience with design thinking; originally developed in the design world, it's a process for creating innovative ideas and for solving problems creatively. (For great info on design thinking as it pertains to libraries, check out the new Design Thinking for Libraries toolkit from IDEO.) Design thinking offers a framework of stepping back and thinking much more broadly and deeply than we might be used to doing.

How does that apply to collaborations, you ask? Well, consider a pretty typical collaboration between a public library and a school. The public library contacts the school and says, "Hey! We have this great storytime/tour/booktalk/etc. We can bring it to you!" And the school, if the timeline works, says, "Great!" Henceforth, both public library and school consider one another partners and/or collaborators.

While bringing a library service more squarely to a school audience is certainly a great thing, it's a pretty superficial partnership. Neither partner is really doing anything that they hadn't done before. Collaborations can go deeper to incur more impact.

Vanessa gave a brief introduction to design thinking, which ultimately allowed us to lay out a process for more transformative collaborations. Consider it a five-step process, if you will.

Rethinking Collaboration: A Primer Drawing from Design Thinking

Step One: Find the Right People

     I would venture to say that we've all been in a meeting at one point or another where the thought crossed our minds that "the people who really should be at this meeting aren't here." Or, conversely, you've heard about a meeting with a potential collaborator after the fact and thought, "I wish I had been there!" Having the right people at the table is integral for transformative collaborations to get started.

     What that means is that you want the people with both the passion and the capacity to act sitting at the table. That may mean you have to rethink your obvious choices for potential partners; for example, if the school principal is spread to thin, then they shouldn't probably be at the collaboration table. Their staff should absolutely fill them in on everything after the fact, but they're probably not the best in-meeting choice. The people you do want are those people who are intimately familiar with an issue or cause within the organization. They bring the background knowledge and contextual knowledge, and more than likely they agree to sit at the table because they care. A lot. Meaningful collaborations need people who have that passion and are willing to funnel it into action, even though that process will take time and work.

Step Two: Be Open

     You know everything you think you know about that organization with whom you want to partner? Forget it. Do not bring preconceptions to your meeting. This can be hard for a lot of people, especially in situations in which the parties pursuing a new collaboration have worked together before. But think of it this way: If you're a public library, do you think the school truly understands everything you're trying to do, and capable of doing? And vice versa? No. We do a whole lot that they couldn't possibly know about. But if everyone goes to the meeting with a set idea of who does what and what folks can contribute, it automatically starts to limit all the things you could come up with together. So be totally open to the fact that you just don't know, and that you're at the table, at least in part, to learn.

Step Three: Start with Questions

     Vanessa gives the best hypothetical for this step. Imagine your library or department wants a new logo, and you go to a graphic designer. The graphic designer shouldn't just say, "Great! You're a library! I know what a library is. I got this," and then send you mock-up logos in a few weeks. A great graphic designer is first going to ask you a ton of questions. About the library's history. About the people who work there. About the people who use library services. About service philosophy. Etc. etc. etc. All. The. Questions. Only then, with lots of contextual information and an idea of the vision of the library, will the designer get to the drawing board.

     The best question to include: What do you want to see in your community?

     By starting with lots of questions, you're doing two things: first, really amassing deep context for a potential partner and their goals; and second, breaking the superficial discussion barrier that can manifest in lots of meeting scenarios. Frankly, we're not always good about talking about ourselves; or, conversely, we assume that the person we're talking to already knows a lot about us. Both of these things lead to undertaking of valuable information about vision, services, mission, everything. By asking lots of question, and listening actively, we truly learn about what a fellow community organization is hoping to do.

Step Four: Share Your Plan

     After you've asked lots and lots of questions and listened thoughtfully to the answers, it's time for you and your organization to share your plan; that is, your vision, mission, goals, and services. This step is vital, because it is where all parties at the table can start to identify overlap. This overlap is the sweet spot for creating a transformative collaboration.

     If, in the course of question-asking and plan-sharing, you determine that you do not currently share any common goals for the community you and the other organization both serve, the time is probably not right for pursing a collaborative project. That's not a bad thing--in fact, it's far better to recognize that now is not the time before pouring lots of resources into a project that will have middling buy-in. Talk about how you can promote one another's services to your respective audiences, shake hands, and make sure to set up another meeting for six months down the line to see if shifts in goals have creating space for a collaboration at that point.

     And if you do find overlap? That means you two are not just driving on the same road headed for the same destination. It means you're in the same vehicle, truly moving together. That's a transformative collaboration.

Step Five: How Might We...?

     Once you've identified that, yes, there is a community need that we both have the resources and passion to aim to address, it's time to get thinking. It's time to ask, "How might we accomplish this mutually-agreed-upon thing that our community needs to be better?" Maybe this starts at the same meeting and everyone brainstorms ideas. Maybe you make plans to reconvene after everyone has had some time to think and will bring their own ideas (called "brainswarming," and arguably more productive than everyone-at-the-table-shares-ideas-live brainstorming). Either way, it's time to finally get to that stage where more traditional, yet ultimately superficial, partnerships start: the "I can bring this to the table" stage. You guys all know how to take it from here.


So that's what Vanessa and I talked about at SXSWedu: rethinking collaborations using design thinking, or taking a couple of steps backward in our usual partnership process so that we can try to do something truly transformative. Our complete slides from the session are below, and I want to particularly point you to the resources we include at the end in case you're looking for more information on this process, etc.

There was great audience participation and sharing at our session, too, with plenty of great ideas and collaboration troubleshooting tips flying across the room. It's our hope that, the next time you think, "Hey, we might be able to work with those folks next door," you have a toolkit to do so as productively as possible.

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