Collaborators Corner: The Dragonfly Collective

Andrew Curtis
Tara Anderson

Collaborate speaks to Dr Andrew Curtis and Tara Anderson, co-founders and directors of the Dragonfly Collective.

Based in Australia, the Collective is a social enterprise working with others to reduce inequality. Its aim is to be part of the mosaic of movements fighting inequality at the local and systemic level. They consult and partner with a range of organisations working to reduce inequality, including social enterprises and charities in Australia and more recently in London.

The Dragonfly Collective

Please tell us more about role and purpose of the Collective?

Basically we believe that inequality can be avoided. It is not an economic necessity, more likely the product of political economics from a particular view that has dominated government policies and practice in the UK and Australia for nearly 30 years. We believe it is time for change.

How did the Collective start? Was it the result of a ‘light bulb moment’ or did it just naturally evolve?

We met working on the Executive Team in a large social services NGO in Australia. It was in a café one morning over coffee when we started sharing our frustration with the conservative and bureaucratic culture of the organisation. Three hours later we had the outline of a business plan written on a napkin. So it wasn’t a ‘light bulb moment’ as much as a decision to stop complaining and instead turn our frustration into something constructive.

The American comedian Amy Poehler said that people should be open to collaboration as other people’s ideas tend to be much better than your own. Was this true in your case?

We are always open to new ideas and new thinking – in fact we think it’s a crucial part of changing systems and structures that cause injustice. There have been many people who have supported our work and shaped our thinking. One of the problems with the system as we see it is that organisations limit their vision to the remit of their own organisation from their own worldview, and we want to encourage the opposite. We see ourselves as part of a mosaic of ideas joining together as a movement to change a system where one per cent of the world enjoy massive advantage while the vast majority are faced with disadvantage.

How did you work out your strategy?

Our strategy has evolved over time and we refresh it regularly. We take ideas, data, information, research and ambitious dreams and mix them with reality. We have had to let go of some of our big ideas… in some cases because collaboration on a project has not worked out after some time and a little pain and several lost pennies. Strategy is not static – it is constantly evolving and emerging and collaboration and sense-checking with others is always a central part of that.

While collaboration can bring people and organisations together for the better, it can sometimes lead to tension and battles for control. Did that ever happen to you?

We have been privileged to work with individuals and organisations that have shared our vision and have been open and willing to work in partnership. So we haven’t personally experienced a battle for control in our collaborative work. However it is something that we’ve researched.

Tara’s thesis for the Masters in Social Innovation focussed on the barriers and enablers of ‘collective impact’ – a structured form of cross-sector collaboration with a systemic change intent first codified by two American social scientists in 2011 (see http://ssir.org/articles/entry/collective_impact). We wanted to understand how to make it work and what gets in the way, specifically in the UK context. Interestingly, while the research confirmed that individual ego and power battles are a key barrier for effective collective impact work, it also highlighted two things:

Firstly, ‘power battles’ can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is an assumption from partnering organisations that the other partners will want control or credit for the project, and that assumption leads people to start on the defensive, which ultimately leads to power battles, effectively ‘fuelling the fire’ of the ‘power and ego’ rhetoric we have come to accept as usual.

And secondly, contestation is actually a natural and crucial component of effective collective impact and should be embraced. Conflict and contestation help us to move beyond incremental innovations driven by unanimous consent and create more disruptive change. Often the best ideas will be generated through a clash of alternative experiences and points of view. It’s also worth noting that the absence of conflict does not necessarily mean collaboration is working well, but that the conflict is happening outside the room.

Please see http://dragonflycollective.com.au/publications for a copy of the thesis.

How did you work out any differences while getting started?

From our perspective, collaboration is a mind-set as much as an activity or a process. Making collaboration work is about being genuinely committed to a shared goal and putting the goal above individual interests. So one of the most important steps is building a shared understanding of the issue and how it might be solved. Part of this process is about being ‘human’ – sharing hopes, worries and aspirations openly so partners understand their own biases and assumptions as well as those of their partner. Regular and open communication is the key to building a shared understanding and shared goals (as well as delivering the project). 

What 5 adjectives would you attribute to a great collaborator?

These aren’t all adjectives, but what the research for the thesis highlighted as some key characteristics of an effective collective impact leader are:

  • They lead by stepping back, combining humility and strength.
  • They are open-minded and ask lots of questions so they really understand the point of view of others.
  • They are brilliant at building trusting relationships.
  • They see the bigger picture – they are intent on achieving a long term, systemic goal.
  • They are solutions-focussed and don’t let challenges get in the way.

How does this work in a partnership?

You must always ask yourself: who made the most sacrifices to make the collaboration work – you or your partner? We aim to make sure that risks and sacrifices are shared as much as possible. Good collaborations are about partners looking out for each other, because they know that it’s only with the sum of the parts that a bigger impact can be achieved.

In your view, what are the main inhibitors to collaborating?

The research for the thesis on collective impact highlighted key barriers to collective impact in the UK:

  • Existing services with established theories of change: the UK has a fairly well established welfare state and charitable sector, which creates three challenges. Firstly there’s a less obvious ‘gap’ to fill, secondly existing institutions can tend to assume the appropriate solutions are already in place or in development, and thirdly there are a higher number of people with ‘sunk interests’ in maintaining the existing system in its current form.
  • Time required for building relationships: trusting relationships are both the means and the end in collaborative projects, but there is a big gap between the time required to build relationships and the time available.
  • Ego and power dynamics: there is a tendency for individuals to seek credit for their work.
  • Inflexible understanding of perceived roles: collaborative work requires people to rethink their roles in the larger system, something that’s notoriously difficult to change.
  • The political climate in the UK: 30 years of neoliberalism has created a culture that normalises market-based competition and individualism, which is countercultural to the mind-set required for collaboration.
  • Lack of long-term and flexible funding: collaboration requires a new type of funding that’s both flexible (can be adapted for new requirements) and long-term (two-three years to give the collaboration time to develop effectively).

Generally speaking, how important is hierarchy in any collaboration?

Hierarchy only reinforces the ‘power and ego’ dynamic that gets in the way of effective collaboration. What is required however is coordination. That’s what unique about the collective impact approach – it’s coordinated by a ‘backbone organisation’ that is independent of the partner organisations and whose sole purpose is to facilitate the collaborative work (building a shared goal, communication, measuring results, distributing funding, aligning activities and resolving tensions). This arrangement means that none of the partners are ‘in charge’ but that all are working together effectively (easier said than done of course!).

As a leader, were there any areas of collaboration that you found less than fulfilling?

It’s wading through the operationalization of an idea that can get tedious. We’re naturally ‘big picture’ people, so the detail is less fun (although crucial).

Please tell us about the highs and lows of collaborating.

The great highs come when you get alignment of purpose. When you have a conversation and realise that you and your partner are on the same page and your work can complement each other. Those moments are where the energy comes from that sustains you through the more challenging times.

Of course, there are bad days from time to time. Usually when a project moves from the excitement of discovering a shared goal and vision to the operational phase. And sometimes it’s that point that led to us realising that the collaboration wasn’t going to work.

How do you create an environment that encourages collaboration?

The research on collective impact for the Masters thesis highlighted a few crucial elements of an effective collaborative environment.

  • You can’t ‘make change happen’. Instead you need to create the conditions for change. It’s about following a process instead of a set strategy, so all partners can shape the strategy together and jointly own the project’s success (or failure).
  • You need to create a space where it’s safe for people to ask questions, including time for partners to reflect and see reality through the eyes of other partners and the project beneficiaries.
  • You need to nurture commitment to the collective by re-contextualising organisational self-interest and showing that success depends on the wellbeing of the larger system.
  • You need to sustain creative tension, maintaining the gap between vision and reality, which generates energy.
  • And always keep hold of the bigger picture, seeing the larger system, not only what’s visible from your vantage point, and understanding how the pieces of the system fit together.

Why do you think there’s not more collaboration in the world?

That’s one of the things our research set out to explore. And it’s the barriers above that really inhibit collaboration. At a fundamental level, collaboration is hard. It takes time, resources and a whole lot of patience to adapt to working with others who might have different ideas, values and ways of working. It’s much easier (although arguably less effective) to do something on your own.

How do you find the role of the Collective today?

What makes us most excited is when we see the impact of our work in reducing inequality – which is why we do what we do! One thing we’re particularly proud of is a project in Australia that required the hard work of collaboration and which could not have been achieved if only one organisation thought they could do it all. Without any government funding – in fact in a climate of hostility – we worked with others from an initial idea to implementation of integrated reception housing for asylum seekers released into the community on a temporary protection visa without the right to work, access public health or receive a benefit of any kind. It was the first and largest housing for asylum seekers with full case management from entry to exit in Australia. And it was working collectively that made it possible.

To learn more about the Dragonfly Collective, please click here.

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