Collaboration AND Contestability

The following quote got me mulling on an issue that arises again and again with my clients. That is, how can you collaborate within an environment of contestability?

Holly Snape, a Chief Executive in the New Zealand Social Service Sector, had this to say in a recent newspaper article.

“Changes in the funding structure across the sector have been an issue. There has been a move for greater collaboration, which is excellent but it’s really hard because there has also been a shift towards contestable funding models. What you have is a request to be working together but sharing of resources becomes difficult and we are pitted against each other. Contestable funding isn’t conducive to the collaboration we’re talking about.”

Her summary statement goes to the heart of the challenge. How can you collaborate when the environment is focused on competing and contestability? How is it possible to operate these two modes at the same time?

It is useful to clarify just what is meant by the two terms:

Collaboration means to ‘work together’ and has been proven to be a highly effective way of operating for complex situations. By harnessing the collective wisdom of diverse interests, innovative and desirable outcomes can be achieved.

Contestability encourages people to adopt a commercial mindset and encourages competition that will in turn encourage innovation and improved performance.

The desired outcome of both modes of operating is the same. That is, innovation and better outcomes. Yet the behaviours associated with the modes can be very different. Indeed these ways of operating are placed at opposite ends of the Tamarack continuum with contestability hanging out in the Turf end and collaboration happening in the Trust end.

Although an entire PhD could be devoted to this topic, this short blog suggests that the two modes can be used together. They are both useful when employed at the right time and with the right mindsets.

I believe that contestability is a useful mode AFTER the collaborative frame is set. It is essential to collaboratively co-define the dilemma at hand, to co-design an agreed process of working together and co-create solutions. These are the foundations for ensuring people have a shared understanding of what they are working on and working towards.

It is at the phase of delivering actions that contestability comes into its strength. Without doubt competition improves individual motivation and in turn performance. Having contestability at the phase of implementation can definitely interrupt complacency, improve performance and inspire innovation.

This role of contesting was evidenced in my swim fitness squad this morning. There was a new swimmer in the lane with me and I was inspired to swim harder than usual. The result was my personal best swim this year. I would not have achieved this result without the environment of contestability.

In conclusion, I believe that you can collaborate within contestable environments as long as the contestability is done with and not done to. This means that all the stakeholders in a dilemma (including any funders) jointly set the collaborative framework. They can then challenge each other to innovate in finding solutions that stick. This will improve motivation and overall performance so that the most desirable outcomes are achieved.

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