Image: Plymouth Barbican and harbour

Collaborate has a resolution for 2019: to be bold about the future we want to create. Specifically, what a #CollaborativeSociety could look like, how you build it, and where the green shoots are already paving the way.

We have invited a number of leading thinkers and do-ers to contribute their ideas about this concept and its implications through a blog series, as well as events and a podcast series in the autumn.

In the third blog of this series, we hear from Matt Bell, chief executive of Plymouth Octopus Project (POP+), an organisation which works collaboratively to help build a strong voluntary, community and social enterprise sector (VCSE). In this blog Matt shares his observations about what makes Plymouth a collaborative place and explains how POP+ is putting the principles of ‘cooperative by design’ at the heart of their work.

I moved to Plymouth in January and, while it might be an old slogan for the city, for me it is definitely a city of discovery.

The people, the natural beauty and the historical context (and the hills!) are all aspects that passing through I don’t think you would necessarily pick up on. Plymouth doesn’t necessarily display its assets particularly well, but take it from me, they are there.

As well as its physical assets, one of the greatest strengths in Plymouth is the cooperative nature of its people and organisations. I have worked across different geographies and don’t think I’ve come across such good relationships as I have in Plymouth. Perhaps it’s because it’s a city and has a clear identity, perhaps it’s the efforts of the City Council, the social enterprise movement, the strong creative and art scene, or POP+s efforts that have created this environment. I suspect it is all of this combined, but whatever the cooperative drive, it has resulted in a city that I think is extremely well positioned to lead and champion a new approach to achieving social equity and environmental sustainability.

At the heart of this lies the relationships and trust needed to scaffold collaborative action. Collaboration requires time, patience and personal insight, and this can be a painful experience — to realise that your own personal behaviours and protection of organisational boundaries results in the degradation of trust; to find that the leadership behaviours that were rewarded in a system based on organisations competing and vying for resources are now seen as outdated and not needed.

Building relationships and trust is a dance of discovery and growth and every time I think about this, I think of parenting my son. Whenever I am trying to coerce him or control him, using consequences that have no relationship to the situation at hand, there is a loss in connection between us. I have stopped trying to understand him, at his level, the world from his perspective. We are no longer working to the same goal. But every time I put my own ‘stuff’ to one side and work out with him what we can do to achieve the goals that might seem incompatible, the process happens much more smoothly. In fact, it not only goes smoothly, it lays another layer of connection and trust.

But it’s not easy, and working together requires uncovering shared purpose that ties people together. So when you’re working between organisations or with individuals in communities where time to build purpose is challenging, what do you do?

POP+ is working hard to hold relationships and trust at the heart of everything we do. Some of the ways we are testing new ways of working are:

  • Turning the tables on the way we use finance and create a vibrant social economy. Based on the understanding that (1) the societal issues we face are hugely complex and (2) collaboration is critical and central to finding solutions, we are working with SIMPL and local partners cross Devon to apply a Human Learning Systems approach (see below) to redefine the rules around finance.
  • Reimagining our recruitment process. We recently tested a more relationship-based, non-traditional recruitment process. The aim was to be much more human (not paper-based) in our approach, to promote job-shares and to ensure we met everyone interested in the post. However, in some cases it had the opposite effect; worsening rather than strengthening relationships. We will be reflecting on our experiences over the next few weeks to uncover what we’ve learnt.
  • Testing a novel funding process. Working with Ratio on Street-to-Scale, a trust-based approach to funding.
  • Appointing a Learning Champion who will take a learning-focussed approach to building relationships with all the groups that receive funding through POP+.
  • Developing a network leadership group to explore what leadership looks like in the loose environment of VCSE organisations & community-based networks and be more intentional in bringing everyone together.

The work of Collaborate CIC and Newcastle University on Human Learning Systems has given us a framework and the confidence to apply some of these new approaches. It gives us a place to go, to share and learn from others trying similar things. It also gives us courage and hope that we are testing and learning the right approaches that will deliver meaningful change for Plymouth and the UK.

We are trying our hardest to show integrity by aligning our values and actions. And paradoxically because this is actually new — the innovation is not the shiny new idea, but the disciplined enactment of the values we supposedly hold dear to our hearts — we expect to get things wrong and learn as we go.

Central to this is the space and permission to fail and discuss what went wrong openly and honestly so we can extract learning that is meaningful and applicable for the future. Only by doing so can we move forwards. This approach by Esmée Fairbairn is exactly why POP+ can take these risks. The patience and openness with which they work with us is incredible and we are lucky to be in this position. So, this is a request of others that hold the purse strings — we need time, we need capacity and we need the skills if we are to work in a way that is cooperative by design.

These elements, along with a long-term commitment to building relationships and trust, are the scaffolding for a #CollaborativeSociety.

To learn more about Plymouth Octopus Project (POP+), contact Matt Bell at [email protected].