11th January 2019 3 minutes read

Transacting the tango

Housing, welfare inequality, social justice, substance misuse, young people, ageing populations, worklessness, disability, social care, healthcare.  The social sector tackles challenging questions, wherever you look.  And the list goes on.

These are issues we increasingly accept cannot be solved in linear fashion by one intervention, organisation, or even sector. They exist within complex eco-systems and shifting landscapes. They cross boundaries and thresholds and are shaped by interactions and activities often well outside the initial subject, so require broader system thinking.   

Maybe that’s why everywhere you turn people are talking about co-creation, collaboration and partnership. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. 

But that’s just it, it’s too much talk. Talking about. Talking at. Not talking to. Commissioners and service deliverers, funders and grantees, non-profits and corporates, policy wonks and grass-roots activists, fundraisers and the public, large organisations and small. Feedback is asked for but not listened to and all too commonly each side believes they have “the answer”, resulting in an unbalanced equation and a reality comprising of competition, individualism and transaction. 

Doing it yourself seems more efficient.  It only takes one.

Transactions are, in general, simple affairs; unemotional, unambiguous and finite.  Partnerships are fluid, organic, developing. 

Transactions are a handshake; partnerships are a dance. 

Continuing the metaphor, here’s some reasons why there are so few true collaborations.

1)The Silent Disco

There are still large, dominant entities who claim to represent “the voice of the sector”, setting the agenda (or playlist) with their own.  Each organisation, plugged into headphones, moves to their own inner beat.  Viewed through their eyes, others jerk spasmodically, oddly, out of time.  The sense is, “we’re in tune, you’re not.”  As such, there’s no exchange, no dialogue.  There’s no sharing in the pleasure.  There’s only different wave lengths and silence.  It’s a dance, but not as we know it.

2)The Line Dance and the Breakdance

For some, collaboration seems to be the equivalent of one of those collective American line dances; Stetsons on, bootheels striking the floor in unison and a fiddler up on stage calling the steps.  There’s unity.  There’s noise.  There’s energy.  But there’s little nuance, little innovation and little personality.  Just take your partner by the hand and spin them round, and round, and round. 

In contrast, for others partnership descends into a one-upmanship, like some 80s B-boys and B-girls popping and locking, showing off their best break moves.  It’s creative.  It’s exciting.  But it’s a competition.  Props to the victor.  Turf war won.   

3)The Unreliable or Dominant Partner

Mutual respect and commitment are critical in a partnership.  Who wants a partner who lets go of your hand at the critical point, sending you cartwheeling into the crowd, or one you worry will leave you on the side-lines when someone better comes along? 

Ego also has a big part to play in collaborations and is often the cause of their downfall.  Sure, dances require a “lead” and a “follow” but that requires understanding and intuition. Imagine waltzing gracefully across the ballroom, Strauss filling the air, and your partner hollering “one two three, one two three” in your ear, the better to keep you in time. 

So, whether it’s a polka, mazurka or a rave, a merger, alliance or collaboration; pitfalls, pratfalls and posturing are an everyday risk.  Here’s how you can avoid them:

1) A good ear: Listen to the music and listen to your partner.  If you’re doing the Cha Cha Cha and they’re doing the Charleston, it’s going to get messy.

2) Rhythm: Useful in minimising the risk of stepping on toes, mistiming the jump, or cocking up the choreography.  The beats (milestones) are there for a reason.

3) Spatial awareness: There’s a lot going on around you in this complex system.  Stay aware of changes on the dancefloor if you don’t want your next performance to be a solo.

4) Creativity: Because it’s a dance, not a doctoral thesis!

5) Trust: Mistakes are going to happen.  Learn, rehearse, develop, perform.

6) Passion: Without some fun, it’d be like procurement and health and safety tackling the Kama Sutra: an inefficient number of positions and bad for your eyes.  Dull, dull, dull.

People come together through dance.  They are energised and inspired by others in their midst.  They bond.  Dance isn’t going to solve the complex problems society faces, but collaboration just might.  Time to put on our dancing shoes.  

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