Collaboration May Save the World

I’m an optimist by nature, but I’m sometimes daunted by the problems we face: war and human displacement, environmental degradation, global health crises, hunger, and poverty, to name just a few. Complex problems like these make us realize that we need to change many things to make a real difference. If a nonprofit, a business, or a government tries to solve a complex problem on its own, it may not have enough funding, trust or the right jurisdiction to make a difference. It might even create unexpected new problems. But getting organizations to work together across sectors is a powerful way (and perhaps the only way) to make progress on the most vital problems we face. My colleague Barbara Gray and I have written a book called Collaborating For Our Future that describes the potential and limitations of multistakeholder partnerships (MSPs). We draw on examples from around the world to show how to design MSPs, how to address conflict and power issues, and how to navigate the different world views that people bring to them. While they are not a panacea, MSPs hold promise for addressing both global and local problems.

Fascination with organizations

Organizations fascinate me because they are an essential element of what we do as humans. We organize into groups to live, learn, work, fight, and worship. Usually we name our organizations and create elaborates rules around them (like businesses and government) but organizations also include informal groups where people are linked by a common purpose.

Organizations are also a fundamental part of who we are. Try describing yourself without mentioning any of the organizations that you are connected to. That’s easy, you might think, I’m a parent, friend, artist, engineer, or athlete. But take a second look at those identities and how often they are connected to organizations. An athlete is an individual, but has usually been part of multiple clubs, teams, schools, and associations that have helped them become an athlete. It’s hard to separate who we are from the organizations that have helped us become that person.

So why study organizations? We humans seem to do an excellent job organizing ourselves into many different kinds of structures without any help from scientists.

One important reason is that how we organize affects what we do and who we become. How we organize reflects and influences our power and status as individuals and in groups. Consider the difference between non-profit and for-profit organizations–they have different purposes, operate differently, and produce different results. Societies receive different things from these organizations and so have created rules that treat them differently with respect to laws and taxes. But the lived experience of working for a nonprofit is also different from working for a business. Fundamental, unspoken beliefs about why people have organized to work together have a huge effect on what is talked about, what is considered a priority, what decisions are made, and how people feel about their work.

Take a moment to think about the organizations you are connected to and how they are shaping who you are.