Sometimes organizations fall into a backbone role naturally and are working hard with the larger collective on an issue before they have the time or space to think critically about the governance structure. There are two common reasons why a review or improvement of governance system may arise: Often, an external event, such as a new funder or partner, prompts a need to review governance systems. Or, when first entering into the backbone role of an existing initiative, it may trigger an opportunity to improve the governance structure.
Whatever the motivation, given the variety of roles it plays, the backbone organization is centrally located in this process. Instead of being a passive player, a strategic backbone organization guides the partners through the redevelopment of their governance structure, ensuring there is a clear vision, well defined structure, and decision-rules in place.
There comes a point in time for many collaboratives when it becomes critical to review the collective vision of the partnership. A dynamic backbone organization can create space for this introspective process, deepening the connections among collaborative partners and assessing the areas of critical importance where strong backbone support will be vital. It can also help partners to understand not just one big problem that needs to be solved, but the series of interrelated problems that need to be addressed.
When reviewing your vision, it’s helpful to think about what types of problems your collaborative is trying to solve:
- Some problems are simple, requiring the right “recipe”, but once that recipe is found results are guaranteed almost every time.
- Others are socially or technically complicated, where there may be a debate about whether the problem should be solved or how the problem should be solved.
- And then there are complex problems, which are socially and technically complicated; every situation is unique and there are no right recipes or protocols to get to success. Many systems change-related problems are complex, involving politics, bureaucracy, financial issues, and limited resources.
Using adaptive planning tools can be particularly important when addressing complex problems, where partners may know what success looks like, but don’t know all the steps in the road to get there. Forecasting and mapping strategies can help describe what today looks like compared to the desired future. An outcome-focused roadmapping process can create a shared commitment to how the world needs to change, piece by piece, and bring the partners together.
- Visit our Adaptive Planning toolkit to learn more about how to use adaptive planning tools, including a strategic roadmap (a tool to help partners articulate how the world needs to change to achieve their long-term vision).
- Living Cities has developed a Cross-sector Partnership Assessment, designed to help organizations think critically about their collaborative partnerships, and provides feedback, tools, and resources for how to move the work of their collaborative forward.
One of the most common mistakes made by collaboratives who are tackling large scale, systemic changes is to attempt to plan everything out. Detailed, multi-year plans are common, often with specific strategies that backbone organizations, leadership groups, and even partner organizations will be completing over time. Sometimes these exist because funders expect them, but often they exist because that is how organizations plan and without an alternative approach, it’s hard to figure out what to do.
The strategic roadmap model mentioned in the previous section and fully documented here provides an alternative way of planning the work of a collaborative. Instead of planning the detailed activities over multiple years, it documents the shared understanding of what needs to change in the world to achieve the bigger vision.
For example, if the change is increasing children’s physical activity, the roadmap might include such things as policy changes in the education system; built environment changes related to sidewalks, bike paths, playgrounds and recreation centers; levels of awareness, understanding and commitment by parents and caregivers, etc. At any given time, the collaborative may tackle various changes on this roadmap and in various ways, as the environment shifts and partners change. Even without mapping out exactly what they are going to do, they have a clear, shared vision of what they have to achieve to get to increased physical activity for children.
Governance structures and systems can be arranged in myriad ways, depending on the number, range, location and accessibility of each partner in the collaborative. These structures, however, can create unintended consequences and challenging power dynamics if they are not carefully thought out. A strong backbone organization can help rethink structures in a way that promotes inclusivity while maintaining a results-focused orientation.
A decision-making process is more likely to be successful if it is carefully designed upfront to ensure the process matches the context and needs of the initiative. Backbone organizations can play a central role in developing the decision-making process and stewarding it over time. Often groups have upfront work about decision-making, but do not commit to using the process or refining it along the way. With a backbone committed to high quality, transparent decision-making, this aspect of the initiative will not only work more effectively, it can also build stakeholder sense of the initiative being a legitimate and credible source of critical decisions to drive systemic change.
In designing a decision-making process, it is important to clarify the overall structure and approach. While some processes are pre-defined, allowing a group to design their process may help in building buy-in and increase the likelihood of success. Processes can also be more flexible and may often default to a facilitated process or a non-facilitated process
Another important step when bringing participants along in a decision-making process is collectively setting up the norms for how participants will operate and the principles that will drive the overall process. Other key decisions include:
- Who are the needed participants?
- Is outside facilitation needed and how should a facilitator be selected?
- What are the core principles/group norms to orient participants to the dialogue?
- What are the decision-rules to use?
Of note, making decisions collaboratively does not, by default, mean that the decision must be made using 100% consensus. There are many ways to design decision rules, and even multiple ways to define and use consensus. Successful consensus processes attempt to accommodate minority interests in different ways, addressing concerns related to imbalances in representation and power, and have a variety of rules with different benefits and weaknesses. The choice of decision-rule can greatly affect the process in both positive and negative ways.
- The Tools for Complex Decision-making Toolkit is designed to help explore how to structure a decision-making process amid complexity and outlines how to design a decision-making process, including selecting participants and decision-making rules.