A discussion on collaborative practice and planning in North West Glasgow

On 21st January, we held an event in Maryhill Burgh Halls attended by 20 people representing social work, community based services, housing and cultural organisations. The purpose of this event was to start a conversation, to consider what could be achieved for communities in NW Glasgow through a broad, rich partnership of agencies and people.

Our goal was to enable people to:

  • Connect up – to have different types of conversations, make new contacts and networks
  • Understand what the group agrees and disagrees on (in relation to partnership and collaboration), and the focus of work
  • Commit – Understanding and identifying the appetite for the work.

The conversations had on the day were far reaching, crucial for many in the room was the notice of impending cuts, with a very difficult funding landscape at present being continually discussed and presenting a sense of urgency to act. Concerns were raised about very local organisations working with the most vulnerable being under threat.

There was also a genuine source of frustration that the policy context at the moment is so supportive of the type of work that grassroots organisations are trying to undertake, but that the perception is that this is failing to manifest or be invested in at a local level. Hearing about the struggles that local organisations are facing in terms of cuts was very stark, and it was voiced that there was more to be done to bring the policy rhetoric into the reality of what communities are experiencing.

Emerging inter-related themes

  1. Relationships between organisations need to be strengthened. It takes time to build trust

There was a sense from the group that we have to start somewhere, and that small conversations like this which enable a space for people to explore issues together is a key step forward. There was expressed appetite from those in the room to come together and gain a better understanding of what each other does and to build trust to enable collaboration. The real concern voiced was that the very local organisations who have deep and sustained relationships with the community are lost in the next round of cuts. One of the questions we posed was whether or not we could collaboratively work together as a group of organisations to go to funders and provide an offer to help them reach their transformational agenda?

  1. Relationships with people living in the community need to deepen

There is a wealth of work happening to engage with people locally across each of the organisations that were represented on the day. However, the group recognised that each organisation is doing this differently, asking different questions and rarely shared the result of this engagement with others. There is the potential to create opportunities for people to come together to enable the community to have their say on the broader context of cuts to services. This would serve as a contextual analysis at a locality level to enable us to understand what the community wants and values. Could the organisations gathered share the information that they have to look for insights and gaps about they key issues to be addressed as identified by the people of Milton?

  1. We need to raise the profile of the work that we do / build organisational resilience to weather the storm

As resources continue to diminish we need to think of clever and sophisticated ways of arguing our case and trying to get investment. Some of this will be about relationship building. This is about exposing what organisations do and the connections between those organisations, rather than promotion. A ‘campaign’ – to support decision-makers to understand how crucial this preventative work is. This is not just about looking at figures, but helping people to understand the impact of this work, and what will be lost if the funding goes.

There also needs to be a constructive challenge to current funding processes that demand that organisations invest significant resources of tie and energy continually evidencing the need for and efficacy of their work. If resources to tackle inequality and poverty are being cut does it make sense to take resources from the complex and costly layer of oversight and produce more effective streamlined processes of funding and evaluation?

Actions

We agreed that the next steps for this work didn’t need to be leaps, but could involve an invitation to bring a wider group in, that said, the following actions were identified:

Short term

  1. Identify people who are happy to go forward with this collaborative project – both in the room and others who are working locally and willing to walk on this journey with us – keep asking ‘who is not here that should be’
  2. Quick and dirty asset mapping exercise – focused on what do the community value and need? and how is this invested?
  3. Run another session in March for a wider group to come together

Reflections

“it’s the first time I haven’t felt a combative environment”

“it was a day where people seemed to see other people’s roles and perspectives”

We were pleased (though surprised!) at the really robust, honest conversations that emerged from those who attended. People did not skirt around the key issues and were determined to confront the difficult circumstances they were finding themselves in head on. It remains to be seen how committed people are to working together, but there was a sense from the partners that the event provided a greater foundation for which to approach other organisations. That said, it was evident that the majority of the people in the room were from local (to the North West of Glasgow) organisations, not specifically focused in supporting the people of Milton, and so there was the recognition that more would need to be done to invite the very local organisations into the conversation, as well as maintaining the links with those who’d taken part on this day.

Creating a vision for the Glasgow (North West) site

After the teams were chosen to be taken forward, the first stage was to visit each partner in their own environment. At this point, it was important for us to reiterate that over the coming months, the scope of Iriss’ involvement would be to get to know the partners, the local area, and to support them to get some work moving, after which we hoped we’d be in a better position to be able to decide which of the two areas offered the potential for greatest learning.

That said, our key contact in Glasgow North West, North United Communties invited us to attend a couple of sessions with their broader organisation and others working locally to discuss the first steps of this work. At these meetings it was clear that there was a shared understanding between us that collaborative working doesn’t ‘just happen’, and that a precursor for working together would be developing relationships, trust and awareness of each other’s’ roles, responsibilities and connections.

Although representation of ‘the right people’ had been a key criteria put forward and agreed at the Stirling event, this was one of the elements that was weaker for the Glasgow site (with only two people attending, compared to others who had 5/6 in their teams). To that end, we discussed the need to (quickly) ensure that a wider group of people were brought into the process. We decided that a first step would be to create a safe, supportive space to enable people to come together to sign up to the purpose of the work and determine actions to take forward – most likely, through an event. The intricacies of relationships between community organisations cannot be ignored and we were keen to take the first steps “cautiously and compassionately, whilst still being transparent and inclusive”. This is a difficult tightrope to tread, but we were keen not to alienate anyone in the development of the project, rather to position the work as an ‘offer’, and to invite people in, developing a feeling of inclusion from the outset of the project.

As Mark remarked paraphrasing Antonio Machado…”we are interested in what works and that is often the more difficult and challenging path, but of course there is no path to the future, the path is made by walking.”

This is crucial as we know that working collaboratively, and adopting an asset based approach is underpinned by a set of values and principles. These values and principles focus on nurturing engagement and relationship building to enable strengths, capacities and abilities to be identified and developed for positive outcomes. Key to these initial discussions, then, was ensuring that this new work would build on the strengths of any previous work in the area and on existing links within people in the local community, as well as those operating across the North West Glasgow area.

Collective decision making – right or wrong?

We were lucky to be able to bring together a diverse, experienced and knowledgeable Critical Friends (CF) group to reflect with us on the project and the direction that this was taking, especially in relation to our collaborative and co-productive aspirations.

This blog reflection begins with a CF meeting that we had between the two initial project events (the first workshop brought areas together to talk about collaboration and project possibilities, and the second essentially asked areas to pitch their ideas/vision to us and each other). In this CF meeting we discussed how we were going to move forward and make a collective decision on which project/s we were going to continue support on.

As a staff group in Iriss, we aspired to be truly collaborative in our approach to decision making. In other words, we didn’t want to be the sole voice making the decision on which of the projects to take forward. Therefore, as we had discussed in the previous CF meeting, we wanted to hold a collaborative vote at the end of workshop day two, with all the project groups voting on which projects would be taken forward. This voting would be done based on short poster/oral presentations from each group that had been developed throughout the day.

However… the question came up in the CF group:

Will we know (and will others know) enough about the other partnerships to make a decision?

By employing this collaborative voting system we had hoped this this was the fairest and most transparent way of choosing ideas/localities to take forward. This was raised as possibly not being the case. Firstly, the CF group thought the other groups at the workshop wouldn’t have enough information to make their decision. Essentially they would have been voting on the short presentation made at the end of workshop two. They didn’t think this was enough to know the plans in a robust enough way. Secondly, there was a worry that a shared understanding was necessary between Iriss and the chosen group, but not between each other. In essence, Iriss has to live with the projects that were chosen, the other groups would not. If collective decision-making was employed, we would be ceding control of the direction of the overall work to people that may not be actively involved any further than this workshop day. This presented us with a tension between our hope to be transparent and collaborative, while still trying to retain our original project focus.

In the end, despite the CF reservations we decided to go ahead with the vote at the end of the workshop day. We tried to allay the CF fears in a number of ways.

  • We set out a range of criteria for the groups to judge the presentations on. We presented these to the groups at the beginning of workshop two and sought their feedback. These highlighted the importance that we were placing on the vision and potential of the ideas, as opposed to being about concrete plans.
  • We designed sessions leading up to the presentations to help the groups set their ideas out in a way that would help others make an informed decision (outlining things such as local assets, potential partners, appetite for collaboration).
  • We decided that the final vote would give us a ‘top two’ that we would commit to working with until June 2016. After that time, we would make a decision on which area to continue working with. This would give us time to build a relationship with two areas and really get a feel for which would most benefit for our continued involvement.
  • We offered continued support to the areas that didn’t get voted into this ‘top two’ and we are currently working on idea development with two of these groups (albeit to to a lesser capacity than the vote-winning areas).

In each group there were one or two Iriss representatives to help facilitate, and they also participated in the group decision-making.Each group had seven minutes to present and the other groups had the opportunity to ask questions afterwards. We then asked each group to collectively rank the other group ideas and announce their decision. These scores were accumulated in front of the groups and two project areas emerged as the chosen locales/partnerships.

As you can imagine, this had both pros and cons (my views only!!!):

Pros

  • Voting criteria were identified and the groups were invited to add to/amend these
  • The vote was collective and open, everyone could see how the partners were chosen
  • A decision was made quickly to maintain momentum in the overall project
  • The chosen groups felt valued and that their ideas held merit

Cons

  • Understandably, directly after the vote, there were some disappointed people in the room that made for an unsettling atmosphere – work had to be done to keep the relationships with these groups healthy
  • The vote outcome relied not only on the strength of the idea, but also presentation skill
  • Even though criteria were outlined and discussed, groups were not held to account on how they put these criteria into practice.

Written by Stuart Muirhead

Giving up power vs. accountability

In this post, Chris Bruce (Improvement Hub) reflects on the processes used by Iriss to gain a partner in this project. He presents an interesting perspective that was consistent with some members of the Critical Friend group, although direct contrast to others. Further reflections from the Iriss team are presented in a future post.

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In the Pioneer Enabling Collaborative Leadership work, we have been thinking again about Johari’s window.  This is a helpful model for thinking about feedback, and learning about ourselves from the perspectives of others.  With its emphasis on the known and the unknown facets of ourselves, the model seeks to promote a way of being that maximises our own potential.  The idea is that the more we can come to know ourselves, and minimise the “unknown” elements – the more effective and powerful we will be.

Image © alan chapman 2003

IRISS’ brave “big idea” led us as a group of critical friends to reflect together on the right use of power in exercising IRISS’ responsibilities.  The organisation seeks to promote innovation and the use of evidence towards the public good of “improving personal outcomes that matter to people”.  We found that ultimate purpose a helpful touchstone in supporting IRISS to think about what it should do and how it should do it.

I think that through these discussions every one of us [the Critical Friends group] has come to recognise how we habitually deploy our powers without realising we are doing so – and so often reinforce the status quo as we do this.  In that vein, the IRISS team initially issued an invitation to partnerships to put forward proposals for work with IRISS – which would then be judged by the IRISS Team with a winner declared in due course.  I guess the assumption was that IRISS would come up with an appropriate and transparent set of criteria for making the selection.  Perhaps a fine example of Good Practice – under our current paradigms.

But the frame provided by the report of the Christie Commission, and the Self Directed Support legislation, and the focus on improving personal outcomes embedded in the Public Bodies (Joint Working) Act, gave us pause for thought.  If we sought to promote co-production, genuinely seeing and recognising what each partner brought to the table, what gave one party the right to judge the others?  So the (much more challenging) path of jointly deciding who should work with IRISS was chosen (and is written about elsewhere on this site).

Of course these processes mirror the work with people and their families that health and care workers do every day – trying to balance the wishes and wants of people, families, professionals, and agencies, to agree a plan that best suits everyone, makes use of everyone’s assets, builds communities and avoids unnecessary dependency on services.  That practise of collaboration – which we can only achieve through good conversations – is mirrored in the conversations the IRISS team has had with the partnerships.

It is only by practising what we preach – enacting our policies – adopting an appropriate way of being – that we can best use our selves to add to the public good.  Our unknown selves have great potential for good – our known selves can be challenged and built on if we deliberately suspend our habitual behaviours and try new habits.  IRISS have modelled this approach in this first phase of the Big Idea.  The approach has drawn in all of the interested parties, sought their input as equal thinking partners, and been brought to an initial conclusion, all by mutual consent.  It has been painful at times, with raw emotion in the room and afterwards.  People have discovered things about themselves that they didn’t know before.

We can be confident that this will have a significant impact on what comes next, as a certain tone has been set from the beginning.

We also believe that one or two of the partnerships not selected to work with IRISS will progress their proposals “anyway” and I have no doubt that IRISS will want to help and follow developments as far as resources allow. I think we can say at this stage that a longer process, deliberately attempting to include all interested partners, has led to greater learning, a good output, and some positive spin-offs.  What’s not to like?

Time to do things differently event 1

After sharing an open call to invite people who would like to work with us on this project we hosted an event designed to focus specifically on ‘collaboration’ and building relationships. On the day approximately 45 people from a range of agencies, groups and organisations were present.

The purpose of the day, as the previous post details, was to meet people, to be clear about the parameters of the work and to model the types of approaches which we know are useful for collaboration. The trick in all this was to provide enough structure, but remain true to principle of collaboration – i.e. to let the work emerge from the connections arising from those in the room. It was clear that:

  • the Contribution Analysis (a theory based approach to evaluation) generated the most energy from those in attendance. This process involves the creation of a logica model which presents the links between resources and outputs. On the day, a logic model was collectively designed by the group and presented back for them to use to enlist others back in their places of work/communities.
  • We also asked people to address their locality (like a friend) and set out their vision for collaborative working by writing a letter to members of the community. Templates for these letters were given to people to take away – the hope being that they’d encourage others to set out their visions so that similarities and differences could be surfaced at the next event.

The evaluations from the day tell a largely positive story, however there were clearly mixed feelings about the approach being used. Many people were seeking greater clarification – and it was obvious that we needed to do more to explain why we were looking to work with partners to give this work clarity, purpose and to engage with a wider reach of partners. We recognise that some of the ‘unknown’ was tough. Much of this was intentional because we consciously didn’t want to put too many limits on the work. However, in the evaluation comments, there were some key questions which knew it would be important to be much clearer on in the subsequent event.

Rather than reverting back to old ways of working by being directive about the direction we need to take the project in, we’ve been trying to hold these feelings much more lightly, and accept that the purpose of this work (at this stage) is that it is collaboratively designed. To explain exactly what we are going to do doesn’t model the kind of practice we want to engage in. Many of us at Iriss found this challenging, and its no surprise that those who attended might have felt this way too. Although new and difficult, we are also learning a lot about the difficulties of working in a traditionally competitive and closed system, to a collaborative and transparent system of practice.

Photographs and a film of reflections from those who attended is available here

Planning the event

The Big Idea had a web presence long before it was a project per se, which was a first for Iriss. We set up a blog to provide access to information about our idea as widely as possible, and at any time of day. We wanted to attract interest from far and wide, and outside of our usual reach of social service organisations, so we needed to be online. From this starting point we used all the routes of communication we knew to reach people: our mailing list, partnership organisations, the champions network, our host of social media accounts, and direct mailings to community councils and facilitators.

When we came to planning the two workshop events to kick off the project, we had a set of values that we wanted to adhere to because we felt it was important that we work in the way communities work best: with organic growth and at their own pace. We also wanted to give attendees the opportunity to experience not only what it is like to work collaboratively with us, but also what it might be like to work with each other – a mixture of friends, colleagues and strangers.

Also central to our values was the spirit of exploration and curiosity. We wanted this to come through not only in the way that conversations were conducted in the room, but also in what messages and questions people could take from the event into their communities to further the conversation and explore local issues and the appetite for change. A continued wider conversation was imperative for the project to gain traction between the two workshops. However, working together on explorative and evolving projects requires a dedication to openness which can make some people feel uncomfortable. Our approach was to build in the workshops elements of creativity, such as mug painting and asset mapping, for the attendees to become at ease with expressing themselves, their skills and knowledge. We wanted to level the conversation in the room so that each person could explore their vision for collaboration, while feeling understood and respected.

Our vision was that attendees at the first session would recruit teams of community members (organisations and residents) that would join them in developing a plan for their community. We therefore ensured that people attending the first workshop could leave the session with information that they could pass on to people in their community who might be interested to join in the second session. For this purpose we asked attendees to write a letter to their community that they could use as a talking point, we distributed cards with link to the project initiation blog, and we kept the phone lines open so that anyone interested in hearing more, or discussing their own possible involvement could contact Iriss for a chat.

We managed to create a lot of interest, and a great buzz in the room on both of the workshop days. The only drawbacks were people’s availability which is a permanent, but growing, issue in the sector. Taking a whole day out of one’s schedule to attend a speculative ‘ideas event’ can be difficult to justify for many. We continue to adapt our approaches to fit with what is possible for stakeholders to commit to.

– It keeps us flexible and creative. It’s difficult, but it’s no bad thing.

Written by Rikke Iversholt

An open call for partners

This project is about genuinely building the work from the bottom up – which means no pre-determined theme or topic – just responding to local needs and issues. Its a new approach because it also means working across different agents in the system – taking a ‘deep-dive’ approach – to see what change we can actually make together over a longer period of time.

Open or predetermined?

That said, at the initial stage, we didn’t have a name for the project, a specific theme, or a partner. This is because we hoped to collaboratively design this shared piece of work. We wanted to make sure that the collaborative approach is modelled through the project from the very start to the very end.

The trouble with this is being open enough to engage people’s curiosity about the work, but not being too vague as to put people off. And, we’ve found that the balance between being clear/easy to understand, and being open/not determined is hard to do.

First steps…

As a first step we put together some text. We agonised over this internally, trying to make sure that there was enough of a ‘hook’ to show peopel that we are serious and committed to the work, but also giving enough space to enable people to see how this could link in with local priorities.

Seeking feedback

We decided to ask a group of critical friends for feedback. And thank goodness for that! This feedback was both fascinating and invaluable. We received comments ranging from ‘you need to be more specific’, to ‘people will want to know more before they engage’, and ‘isn’t this best teased out in conversation, rather than an application process?’, ‘is the substance of this work per-determined?’. In our view, the perceptions from he group we’d engaged with represented a spectrum of attitudes towards project management, tolerance of risk and comfort with uncertainty. Many of these attitudes had been represented within Iriss too.

Specificity

In part due to the fact that we were unable to be specific about the substance (topic of the work, we’d ended up being too specific about our own ideas for how the work might pan out. To some extent we were conscious that because we’re not offering any additional funding for this work, that we’d need to sell ourselves – but it had the opposite effect. Unfortunately, feedback suggested that this actually read as ‘us’ and ‘them’ rather than being the explicit message that we’d hoped to impart about it being a collective ‘we’ relationship. It meant that many were left asking themselves questions around the extent to which the work is something that we were inviting people to participate in, or if our ambition was to co-design the whole thing. Similarly, there were some questions about our role – would Iriss be there to evaluate/ research? Would we enable existing work that was proving difficult to get off the ground? or, would our role be to co-design a new, shared piece of work which we’d develop together for the purpose of learning/making local progress? As a team, we were clear that the role was the latter, but this prompt was useful to enable us to clarify our intention and be explicit.

Critical Friends

We are drawing on the knowledge and expertise from a range of critical friends who will support us as this project takes shape. Their job is to contribute knowledge and expertise from other areas of work. This will involve bringing new ideas, or helping us to make good links and connections nationally. Our critical friends are from a range of organisations including: Glasgow Centre for Population Health, the Joint Improvement Team, SCVO, Stirling University, Leading Room, Scottish Government and Outcome Focus.

Our first meeting was focused on the process of choosing a partner. We’d pulled together the feedback (outlined above) and discussed these issues more broadly. One of our critical friends rightly highlighted that our original process straddled two paradigms – a competition based paradigm where partners would bid to work with us and we’d decide who fit the criteria; and a contrasting paradigm that tries to support shared ownership. Feedback highlighted that by selecting a partner in the process (as was described) could be considered to be reinforcing an ‘expert’ power dynamic. Many of the other critical friends agreed with this feedback.

This was quite difficult for us to hear because this ‘expert’ notion is one of the very things we are keen to challenge!  As an organisation we were really keen to go down the second route, but we weren’t sure how, or what it would be like to give up the single power of decision making (this is something we hope to reflect on throughout the project process).

In the end, we decided that rather than sending out an application form, it would be better to host an ‘open day’ to begin with – as a way to start a conversation about the work and as a means to engage a wider group of people that may be interested in getting involved in a community of practice/interest around this work. We considered that this could enable our collaborative intention to be made more explicit in the process itself as well as the text. The invite and information is here.

Overall…

The views of the critical friends included:

  • it’s more important to get people intrigued and curious, than give the impression that everything is sorted out
  • try to be specific about what you want to get out of the project, so that the ambitions of the work are clear from the outset
  • in systems approaches, the starting point matters as a way of modelling the principles you are working to, and so be careful of the tone of your starting point