Taking My Marbles and Going Home

In our region, we have roughly 500,000 households (44% of the population) who don’t have the monthly income to meet basic living. We have scores of programs to help individuals with basic needs, but these are often disconnected and misaligned—how we work as a region has to change.

I am involved in and see many collaborative initiatives at this moment: from United Way of Greater St. Louis’ internal effort to unlock value for our customers by working differently across divisions to the innovative work being executed dutifully by a handful of United Ways across the nation redefining the future of the United Way system to local collective impact focusing on child well-being and jobs. Collaborative work is tough. Decision-making can be inefficient. One leader who is inclined to collaborate on local issues once asked me, “Who is in charge?”  Collaborative work is revealing. When you stumble, the aftershock is felt by the entire group.  Collaborative work is complex. We loosely use the terms collaborate and partner without truly understanding the implications for this way of working.

Part of the challenge that I see is most of us are predisposed to cooperate. The difference between cooperation and collaboration can be subtle, but is important.

  • To cooperate is to operate independent of the other. Cooperation is much more about moving down a parallel path in pursuit of our individual goals. Most of us do this every day. It is a basic requirement of life. Cooperation is generally the road easiest traveled. As a foster kid, I often felt that I was floating in the cosmos among governmental and social service forces cooperating to keep me average, which meant safe and a high school graduate. But, I wanted more out of life and had a different vision. To achieve something greater requires a different mental model and way of working.
  • To collaborate is to co-labor. Co-laboring is much more about co-creating goals and integrating activities toward a common vision. When we collaborate we subordinate our personal agendas for the greater good. As a teenager, I lived in the North St. Louis-based orphanage – Emergency Children’s Home. I was housed with a number of other teen boys who were all, generally speaking, parentless and on this journey to figure life out. We all had our struggles and yet in order for us to survive and ultimately thrive, we had to figure out how to labor together to make our house function, from shopping for food to cooking, cleaning and most importantly the group therapy to deactivate the landmines of our lives. We were interdependent.

Collaborative work is the most difficult and yet, represents the most promise for advancing individuals, organizations and communities. To collaborate does not mean that the effort is leaderless or you have to give up your own identity. While making decisions as a group is not as efficient as one individual, sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. What makes collaborating so powerful is the diverse perspectives and strengths that are brought to solve issues—your uniqueness as a leader is celebrated and amplified in collaborative spaces.

Many of us have heard the often used phrase, “I am taking my marbles and going home” as a way to characterize those who opt out of the game or process prematurely because things are not going the way they hoped. My hope is that we create a new stickiness and muscle for collaborative work. As resources become more constrained, working together to achieve common goals, particularly where it concerns those who are the marginalized, will become even more important. The competitiveness of our region depends on it.

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