Apr. 14, 2016 2:40 pm

How collaborations can fall apart if mission is the only priority

Four of Baltimore's leading social entrepreneurs shared lessons learned at a Light City panel on collaboration. The takeaway? People over purpose.

Forging collaborations can be like building a house of cards.

(Photo by Flickr user Kim, used under a Creative Commons license)

This is part of a series about Baltimore's social impact community via its Light City conference.
Collaboration can be a really good thing. It can also be a vehemently hostile and ego-driven hellscape.

The difference between a good collaboration and a bad one, according to a group of Baltimore social entrepreneurs, can be traced back to the people who comprise it.

Impact Hub Baltimore cofounder Michelle Geiss, Brioxy founder B. Cole, Invested Impact founder Rodney Foxworth and Mission:Launch Executive Director Laurin Hodge shared stories and advice on collaboration at a Light City panel.

Here’s the takeaway: It might seem like mission should be the focus of your collaboration, but that mission can’t be executed without a team that’s on the same page.

“Almost number one, the hardest thing about collaboration is it’s people,” Geiss said. “People are complicated. We like to think it’s all about the work, that it’s all about the objective, that it’s what you’re trying to create — but at the end of the day, we’re human. That gets messy, fast.”

Making a lot of people with their own emotions, opinions and baggage get into a straight line is not an easy process. But maybe its biggest weakness can also be its greatest strength.

“You collaborate to accelerate,” Cole said. “I’m in my thirties and started a tech company. A lot of us find that we’re getting started later in the game and later in life. I look young, but it’s been a game changer for me to not only collaborate but create a culture where people different than me can thrive.”

"You collaborate to accelerate."
B. Cole

It’s all about perspective and having a lot of it.

“I think collaboration really helps round out the perspective you bring,” Geiss said. “In particular, it helps you articulate ideas clearly.”

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That means ideas are challenged, making good ones stronger and killing off weak ones.

“It’s a lot like a relationship. You commit to the good, the bad, the sometimes ugly. But what ends up happening is you create relationships,” Cole said. “That’s how we built our network — by positioning other folks to be wildly more successful than we are.”

Hodge said she’s the daughter of a formerly incarcerated woman, and leans on her mother to work toward a solution from a variety of perspectives. This past year, she said, has provided more difficulties than usual.

Why? Because after the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent uprising, a spotlight was placed on Baltimore. And with that spotlight comes money.

“I need to judge the intention of those in the room,” Hodge said. “Because we just don’t know. We need to make sure we check our spirit and the spirit of the people we’re working with.”

According to the panelists, there are strategies and sweet spots in terms of number of collaborators pending on the project. Hodge errs on eight and under for mobilization projects, but 20 to 30 for community initiatives. Cole prefers groups of eight to 12.

But the root of the problem, Cole said, is that most people just don’t know how to collaborate. Hodge said it all starts with empathy and good intent. Geiss relies on a combination of perspective. Foxworth emphasized dialogue, productive discourse and a respect for the historical context of a community.

It comes down to three things, Foxworth said: “Build trust. Get a sense of historical context in whatever you’re working on. Be open to learning.”

If only it were that simple.


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