As our world faces increasingly complex problems, finding solutions that will improve the human experience and ensure our ability to survive and thrive long-term will require collaboration among diverse stakeholders at levels never before experienced in human history. The business community is a critical stakeholder in creating and developing these collaborative solutions.
Reos Partners is a global enterprise focused on helping people work together to make progress on their most difficult and pressing issues. Reos Partners North America is a B Corporation, so certified for its social and environmental performance. It was also recently recognized as a Best for the World organization in 2021 for being within the top 10% of B Corps for performance on Governance issues.
The driving force behind Reos’ work is in enabling stakeholders with differing — sometimes opposing — motivations, desires, needs, and communication styles to find ways to work together and make measurable progress on big, complex issues. Reos Director Adam Kahane is a leading strategist, designer, and facilitator who has worked in more than 50 countries and in every part of the world, with executives, politicians, generals, guerrillas, community activists, clergy, and more. Adam’s latest book, Facilitating Breakthrough, was just released in August 2021.
In a world that is increasingly divided and complicated, facilitating conversations, collaboration, and progress is more and more relevant in professional life. I found that Adam’s book is written for anyone who helps people work together — be it a facilitator, executive, manager, consultant, mediator, or stakeholder. Facilitating Breakthrough to offer a broad and insightful vision of the contribution skilled facilitation can make in helping people move forward together.
Given my research on how companies can manage diverse stakeholders, recently asked Adam about his book and in particular some of the methodologies for effective collaboration across diverse stakeholders he outlines based on his decades of facilitation experience across the globe.
Chris Marquis: In your work and in this book, you focus deeply on enabling collaboration. Why is collaboration so important right now?
Adam Kahane: In the face of increasing complexity and polarization, it is becoming harder for people to move forward together. But to be able to make progress on the crucial challenges we face, we need more and better collaboration.
Marquis: How have you seen efforts at collaboration work, and how do they fail?
Kahane: The two most common collaboration methodologies — getting participants to subordinate their interests to the good of the whole, or enabling everyone to do their own thing — don’t work. Our capacity to get people to do things is actually very limited.
That approach isn’t enough to produce systemic transformation. At the same time, in most situations, people want to make their situations better. So rather than pushing people to collaborate, we remove the obstacles that stand in the way of everyone contributing and connecting equitably.
Marquis: What can business leaders learn from this methodology as they seek to make progress on challenging issues, both within their organizations and in their work in the broader world?
Kahane: Business leaders can always try to make things happen, within their company or in the larger world, through forcing, cajoling, or persuading. Sometimes these methods work, but more often they don’t. Business leaders therefore increasingly need to facilitate genuine collaboration among internal and external stakeholders. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to agree on everything; it simply means enabling teams, notwithstanding their differences and disagreements, to move forward together.
Marquis: As the world faces ongoing challenges including the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and global threats to democracy, the meaning of being an “impact business” is becoming more complex. Can you share what being an impact business means to you?
Kahane: Being an impact business means taking seriously our responsibilities not only to our internal but also our external stakeholders. Businesses have a role in producing these problematic situations and so we also have a responsibility to participate in collaborating to change them.
At Reos Partners, our work is to help diverse people work together to address their most important and difficult issues, whether these relate to climate, employment, energy, environment, health, education, water, democracy, or peace. We help people move forward together on these issues through employing not only power but also love and justice — and to do our job effectively and credibly, we must also embody and employ these three drives. Being an impact business means we are committed to and accountable for walking our talk.
Marquis: When you look at the systemic nature of the complex global problems we face, what role do you see the business community playing?
Kahane: Businesses can and must lean in to address complex problematic situations such as climate change and other dimensions of unsustainability, and racism and other dimensions of inequity. Such situations cannot be addressed successfully through force. If some players try to move forward using force, others will force back, and the result will be stuckness or violence. Therefore, to be able to make progress in such contexts, the players involved need to collaborate.
The important point is not, as the saying goes,“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” More crucially, it’s that “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” Businesses are powerful players in the system that is creating the situation we are in, and so for our situation to change, businesses must recognize and change what they are doing.