Collaborate CIC is a social change agency that helps people, organisations, services and systems to collaborate for social change.

We try to influence the debate and practice of social change by sharing learning and thought leadership; and we work with a range of funders who support elements of our research.

But the core of our organisation is based on a consultancy model. We get paid by organisations — usually local public services and the third sector — to help them in the collaboration challenge they are facing, and we rely on this work for most of our funding.

Despite this, ‘consultancy’ is a term and a concept we can struggle with as a team. When we are called ‘consultants’, sometimes we feel defensive; we feel that it doesn’t really speak to what we do; and that it puts us in a category of organisations with which we don’t necessarily share core values or practice. We reject the traditional notion and often-negative reputation of consultancy — off the shelf solutions, sold multiple times regardless of context, and driven by profit.

This is partly a question of values and purpose, but there is more to it than that. It’s not just that we don’t believe it is right to sell off the shelf products. More fundamentally, it is because we don’t believe this will help in the environments we work in, and the challenges our work tries to address.

Redefining consultancy for complexity

We are often — perhaps always — working in complexity, engaging in the complexity of our partners’ organisations, services and systems, and the complexity of the lives of the people they serve. So what have we learned about what consultancy means in this context? And how are we imagining consultancy to fit with our mission and values as an organisation, while making a real difference to the work of our partners?

After five years at Collaborate, and with a growing team and work programme, it feels like a good time for me to try to articulate something approaching Collaborate’s philosophy of consultancy, which has grown organically through our work, and also to check how we’re applying our own ideas (such as Human Learning Systems and the ideas we set out in the Collaborative Society Manifesto about why collaboration matters) to our own practice. So here are a few of my reflections about what consultancy in complexity looks like for Collaborate.

1. We engage in a shared learning journey with our partners

This means we share their questions and objectives, and journey alongside them in a spirit of shared inquiry about how we can make progress together. We have ideas, but don’t arrive knowing ‘the answers’ — often there is no simple solution, process, tool or framework that is going to provide one. As consultants therefore, we are joining our partners in a collaborative endeavour, aligning our organisational and learning objectives with theirs, and setting out to explore something new and useful together, which will move us closer to what we both want to achieve. (This also keeps the work alive for us as a team — each project is new and different, in a live relationship and context, even if the objectives are the same as something we’ve worked on before.)

2. We help our partners learn through the work we do together

In the context of complexity, we know that learning is a fundamental driver of adaptation and improvement, and yet (like collaboration), learning is a practice that organisations tend not to make much space for. Learning is not a retrospective activity, it is part of the work of change itself. So we build learning frameworks, facilitate learning conversations, help identify and draw out insights, support prototyping and build learning behaviours and infrastructure as a core element of our consultancy projects. Sometimes we are asked explicitly to act as a Learning Partner to an organisation or collaboration; but it is always part of our work.

3. We bring complementary but distinct strengths to the work with our partners

There is more to our role than supporting and engaging in learning — we want to help our partners in other ways too, because we believe in and share their objectives. So we grow ideas, tools, frameworks, skills and capabilities that add to the resources the partner already has — their deep local knowledge, their ambition, their networks and so on. In my five years’ experience of consultancy, I believe in the power of these assets to help. However, in complexity, I think that consultancy is more art than science — the real skill is in knowing when and how to use these assets, to combine them in endlessly fresh and creative ways in response to local context, and to keep adapting them as live tools. There is no ‘off the peg’ offer in complexity; we too are experimenting, learning and adapting, but we’re also adding to the mix the assets we have developed which can help.

4. We understand our work is context specific, and co-design our activities with our partners

In order to understand how we can help, and the real nature of the challenge we are sharing with our partners, we need to spend time understanding the local context as deeply as possible. This means talking to people from across the system, asking questions, hearing from the unusual suspects, and — when possible — getting on the ground. One reason we sometimes struggle to respond to tenders is that the work is usually fully scoped and even designed. However, we can find once we begin the work that it’s not what is really needed, or that we would have taken a different approach, and seek to redesign the work once underway. We cannot just deliver an intervention, we prefer to spend time understanding and learning about the context, then co-designing work with partners which reflects these insights.

5. We engage with complexity, attend to system conditions and build capability

The biggest temptation when working on projects is to over-simplify the problem in order to make progress on the surface. Sometimes, bringing a sense of order and a way of designing and carrying out work in a complex environment is part of the value we add — we can’t be overwhelmed by complexity. But it is still important to pay attention to the wider system conditions that may be holding a problem in place, and try to shift them through our work. They might be underlying factors such as mindsets or beliefs, or cultural factors, or the quality of relationships in the system, and so on — and we have developed frameworks that guide what we explore. Attending to these conditions is also about how we help build the capability and resilience of our partners for the longer term: to build the conditions for sustained collaboration which can endure after we have left. Solo projects alone will not transform systems — which is why some of our best work has been with partners working together over a sustained period. But even shorter-term projects can contribute to longer-term system change.

6. We work through relationships

In the context of complexity, transaction doesn’t cut it. We are not selling a ‘thing’ that delivers immediate and predictable results, we are building relationships and trust with our partners, working to understand their motivation, the challenges they face personally or as teams, and the change they want to bring about. Sometimes we need to support them to hold their nerve or share their work with others. Just as we advocate human-centered public services, we must provide them.

7. We are flexible and adaptive

When working in complexity, we are working in unpredictable and changing environments, guided by learning and experimentation. We therefore need to flex our project design in response to the live environment, and with our partners, remain open-minded about how we achieve our objectives. We do design projects, and we find many design tools and methodologies very helpful. But sometimes their value is in enabling us to navigate conscious and purposeful deviation from them in service of the goals we’re helping achieve.

8. We bring a different perspective and a spirit of optimism about what can be achieved

It can be helpful to be an ‘outsider’; this enables you to see more clearly sometimes, to spot opportunities or challenges, interpret what’s going on in the work differently, and challenge constructively throughout the system. So although we align ourselves and work in close partnership, we also retain the value of that wider perspective that comes with having one foot in, and one foot out, of the system. We also — I believe — have to bring a spirit of constructive optimism and helpfulness to the mix. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge, and the emotional toll that leading change can visibly take on our partners. While being emotionally present and empathetic, we can help by being constructive and positive about the progress that can be made. (The mantra I often return to with the team is to be positive, constructive and helpful).

9. We embed our work with partners within our own organisational learning inquiry

We have worked hard on what it means to be a learning organisation, and one practice we have developed is to identify a set of questions we want to explore each year, and embed them in all the work we undertake with our partners. (This approach led to our Collaborative Society Manifesto, and this year we are engaged in the Hope Inquiry). This strengthens the spirit of shared inquiry described above, and also ensures that we are learning on at least two levels in all of our consultancy work: the project itself, and what it tells us about the higher level (meta) inquiry we are engaged in as a team. I hope this also means that Collaborate is an interesting place to work, where the team is given space to connect the dots between different projects and use them to spot patterns in the broader story of change in our society, government, public services and communities. I think we also have a responsibility to share as much of that learning as possible, thereby contributing to the broader mission and eco-system of similar work.

10. Finally: we bring ourselves to the work

Working in complexity requires us to be present in our work, bringing our personal curiosity, our belief in the change we’re trying to create, and our confidence that we can add something which helps. As much as we must build organisational tools, frameworks and capabilities that form our consultancy offer, we also need to bring ourselves to the work, as humans as well as consultants. The work is hard, demanding, fast-paced and complex; it requires judgement and flexibility, empathy and awareness. But overall, it’s important that we take some degree of personal and collective joy from the shared experience of engaging in a project and helping to create change.

In conclusion

This blog reflects our current understanding of our work, and I firmly believe that help of this kind — consultancy — has its place in supporting the fundamental changes in thinking, culture and practice we are working to bring about in public services and beyond. Places and organisations often struggle to do this work alone, and it reflects an inherent tenet of system thinking to value multiple roles when creating change. As consultants, we are among those who can offer new perspectives, surface new insights, and bring different thinking, tools and capabilities to the work. I hope that we are redefining consultancy so that it can be helpful in contexts of complexity, and in doing so, living our beliefs about how change happens not just through the objectives of the projects we work on, but how we work on them too.

If you want to discuss any of the above, please do get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

Anna and the Collaborate team