Collaboration in hard times – food for thought

Food for thought

By Jeff Vander Clute

With so much cooking on the stove with the JTM Collaboratory and all the other initiatives, for some reason, I find myself called to stir things up. Here are some overarching observations considering growth, fund raising, collaboration and cross-pollination in difficult times.

There’s a ton of money out there, but it’s locked up. There’s also a ton of fear out there, which works against fundraising. We are seeing in the USA the greatest income and wealth inequality since right before the 1929 stock market crash. Local governments are mostly broke and in some cases even selling public infrastructure to foreign investors (especially Sovereign Wealth Funds) to raise short-term capital. Are local governments going to be able to invest in the kind of initiatives we’re talking about?

Major social changes are needed because, collectively, we’ve been living totally unsustainably. The commons seems to be a cross-cutting re-organizing principle. However, there will be significantly less capital available for funding important projects if the economic precariousness continues or worsens.

Speaking generally, we all have worthy ideas, because it’s so obvious that major social changes are needed. Yet each idea seems to costs one million dollars or more. Again, speaking generally, most worldchanging ideas are developed more or less independently, with an underlying (and sometimes unrecognized) assumption of competition. Therefore, the potential efficiencies and synergies that would derive from collaboration are typically not factored in.

So we find ourselves in an interesting position with, I would offer, an opportunity to learn a key lesson for thriving in the 21st century. As financial resources are coming under pressure we could respond in the “old way” by competing with the people who are aligned with us (insane!). Or, we could respond in a “new way” that is structurally more efficient but less natural. The new way requires that we set aside our fears about scarcity—and our assumptions about competition—long enough to consider how we can do more together than we could on our own.

In the context of JTM, it occurs to me that our worthy ideas, each of which could succeed when considered on an individual basis, are basically competing with one another, each with an overstated need for funds because efficiencies have been excluded from the analysis. This reminds me of John Nash’s example of three young blokes who go to a bar and who each try to pick up the same woman. None of them succeeds. But if they were to collaborate on a collective strategy, they could each have a dance partner!

With JTM, there’s a common purpose behind the various initiatives, and so there are presumably synergies that will translate into cost efficiencies, if there is a high degree of collaboration. It seems likely to me that identifying and realizing these synergies and efficiencies are crucial to the success of the cohort.

This brings me to a series of very hopeful questions and thoughts around JTM:

  • Is there another way of organizing our efforts and resources to make substantial progress even in the absence of significant funding?
  • Is this a commons question? Is JTM itself a kind of commons? The organization is stewarding a common-pool resource of know-how that seems to be unparalleled in the region.
  • Can this know-how be applied with laserlike coherence to identify synergy and collaboration opportunities to a greater degree than market forces (which encourage separate goals and therefore decoherence)? My sense is that JTM could realize massive efficiencies by artfully joining its own projects and by joining those projects with others in the region. But it would take McKinsey-like focus on the details of the various proposals, and due diligence to discover and evaluate what else is around the region, in order to identify what is overlapping and/or complementary. Perhaps a strategic funding opportunity involves an investment in building this capacity.
  • Is there a way of understanding our work in a new context, such that we can tell a New Story that inspires donors far beyond the journalism perspective? My sense is that what we’re really seeing—especially in light of a larger social-change landscape—is an opportunity to bring together news and information, coordination capacities, and arts and community in roughly equal proportion. And moreover that an unequal emphasis that places news and information ahead of coordination capacities and/or arts and community will not succeed. Thus I’m seeing an integrated, systems-thinking approach as a key offering of JTM.
  • Would it be helpful for JTM to become a clearing house and an incubator for an integrated, systems-thinking approach to journalism and community collaboration in the region? Could this be a unique, catalyzing contribution that unlocks great potential, staring in Pacific Northwest?

Food for thought…