Confronting the challenge of collaboration in a world obsessed with being in opposition

By Paul Porteous

Wednesday September 25, 2019

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Diminishing trust in all our institutions may well be the defining feature of this decade. With each new survey, we see dwindling faith in politics, business, charities and even our neighbours.

Social capital, the once-lauded holy grail of community, is crumbling and being replaced by suspicion, hubris and barefaced lies. The collective shrug that greets ‘yet another problem’ such as climate change, growing inequality, refugees, energy policy or failing infrastructure seems to suggest that many people have simply given up.

All of these complex issues represent multiple competing perspectives. If politics is the art of solving problems, then something is seriously wrong with our problem-solving processes.

However, rather than processes, it may be the clashing of values that has reduced our tolerance for engaging alternative perspectives. Too often, in the rush to find solutions, collaboration between sectors is reduced to passive ‘consultative’ processes, which seem designed to produce opposition and conflict rather than confront underlying challenges. At worst, groups recklessly pursue competing ‘agendas’, with the usual suspects plodding through stale debates in an attempt to coerce, intimidate, influence or otherwise convince their way to a solution.

Surely bringing together the brightest minds from different sectors to contribute their best can only lead to progress? And yet, concealed in this simple intention lies a complex landscape of competing values and worldviews, where we are often not speaking the same language, even when using the same words.

On the surface are pragmatic conversations about solutions, progress, creativity and innovation. Underneath are dynamics that languish undiscussed — competing and conflicting values, protectiveness of worldviews and identity, power struggles and fear. In that terrain, one sector or group claiming it has a better answer than another is a sure path to disaster. Whenever the pillars of our worldviews are challenged, basic tribalism leads to defensiveness and mistrust. Suddenly, goodwill can all fall apart.

Cross-sectoral leadership is the art of reaching across this tribalism to engage competing values and ‘learn’ our way to solutions.

At its essence is adapting to new bewildering environments and challenges we have not previously encountered. Effective leadership clarifies conflicting values by creating spaces to ask challenging questions rather than having answers.

Effort and energy should be focussed on key issues, instead of being centralised around individuals and authorities, to create a joint ‘learning dynamic’. This reframes issues away from why things aren’t working (being the sum of our excuses) towards progress (becoming the sum of our potential). It moves from a reactive siege mentality to the freedom of discovery and exploration.

Cross-sectoral leadership also liberates us from self-interest and the constant chorus of: ‘What’s in it for me and my organisation?’ This preoccupation with self-interest has emerged from a pervasive competitive mindset which has rippled through communities, overwhelming the potential for sectors to work collaboratively. Cross-sectoral leadership shifts the spotlight away from self-interest to instead ask: ‘How do we build community?’

Without waiting for permission, our questioning becomes the catalyst to understanding why, what, who and how.


Developing a purpose focused on not just solving problems but increasing our problem-solving capacity. Understanding ‘shared dilemmas’ and decision-making as shared learnings where explicit disagreement is more important than implicit suspicion.

Ask whether there is a shared understanding of the issues. What is at stake, what is working, what needs to change or is missing?


Distinguishing between technical skills-based issues and values-based challenges. Being realistic about contradictions — both the actions or inactions that contribute to perpetuating the problem.

Ask what values are more important than making progress?


Valuing diversity in partners — those who oppose you have viewpoints which are just as important as those who support you. Show a genuine interest in the dissident voices and what you can learn from them.

Ask who benefits from the status quo and who would experience a loss as a result of any change?


Focusing on questions which engage conflicting values and underlying assumptions, rather than obsessing with competing opinions or external solutions.

Ask who has to do what to make progress? What is worth trying that might have the greatest impact? What triggers people to action? How to respond when other issues start to distract from the main challenge?

Shifting the narrative

The cross-sector leadership challenge is to resist rushing to technical solutions and instead approach diagnosis from a new angle — to reframe challenges in ways that no longer seem intractable or inevitable but instead are open to enquiry and learning.

We must not perpetuate the assumption that change occurs through the political or marketing skills of attracting attention as a substitute to confronting underlying root causes. Sometimes the leadership work is external, reaching out to others. At other times it is internal, looking at where our own practices impede progress and where being overly protective creates silos.

Critically, the question shifts from a competitive ‘who wins?’ to a collaborative ‘how do we work together to create new learnings and overcome obstacles?’ It is not that we lack capacity for these conversations, but rather sometimes lack the imagination to transcend the competitive dynamics.

Cross-sector leadership is a continuing process of creating these conversations — raising issues, questioning values, challenging behaviours and constantly probing where the system is working and not working.

Progressively, the need to form deeper relationships and to better understand perspectives becomes essential. We need to be sensitive to listening to opponents and understanding their concerns. We need to be keenly aware of the key values which mobilise people and drive agents of change. In taking action, we need to be alert for unintended consequences and be ready to make mid-course adjustments as necessary. We have to be open to learning and criticism.

Throughout this journey, leadership becomes a beacon for building trust, resilience and innovation.

Dr Paul Porteous is facilitating a full-day event on leadership for cross-sectoral challenges in Canberra in October.

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