A coastal New Jersey community is facing myriad challenges in the face of rapid change – a doubling of the population in the past 20 years due in large part to an influx of Orthodox Jews. The community has experienced dramatic shifts: booming property values and revitalization, along with an altered landscape, new cultural norms, and increased stress on public services. All these changes, and others, have led to heightened tensions in the region. Incidents of anti-Semitism have been on the rise county-wide, and perceptions of bias loom large for representatives of the Orthodox Jewish community. Meanwhile, some longer-term residents criticize newcomers for allowing too much density, undermining public schools, overwhelming the town’s services, and changing the community’s character. A history of fear and mistrust, and a national context of polarization, make coming together fraught with complexity. In this context, CBI was asked to assess the potential of uniting this community around a common vision.

We at CBI come to this situation, and others like it, with fresh thinking about what we are calling “breakthrough collaboration” –  a framework for helping stakeholders advance progress on some of their most difficult challenges. These are situations where stakeholders facing a public issue don’t trust each other, don’t believe agreement is possible, don’t have any underlying shared vision for their future, and don't have a constructive process or forum for dialogue.

We have drawn on our own experiences and frameworks for consensus building, as well as those of colleagues in the field, to name some key ingredients for meeting these challenges. Four elements seem essential: trust building, creativity, negotiation, and joint action. We have good approaches and tools to help stakeholder groups with each of them.

These ingredients are powerful catalysts for constructive interaction among stakeholders, but they beg a question: how do we get stakeholders to the table in the first place? In circumstances like the one described above, it’s clear that there are significant challenges for getting key parties even to consider the possibility of collaboration. 

Enabling Conditions

As we assess challenges like those faced by the community described above, we think about “enabling conditions” –  conditions that create the context for stakeholders to decide whether to collaborate.  We’ve identified several that seem to affect the chances for collaboration in many different settings:

  • Orientation toward conflict: the set of mostly unstated norms and assumptions about conflict, and how it can or should be managed, that shape behavior. People and groups can place higher value on dialogue, reciprocity, and problem solving, or on confrontation and winning. Approaches to conflict are not only defined at a national level; counties, towns, subcultures, ethnic groups, organizations, and occupations can all have distinct norms and expectations.
  • Forum for collaboration: Within any jurisdiction (town, state, agency), some public issues are more commonly handled through formal governmental decision making, and others through collaboration among public and private stakeholders. If the issues dividing stakeholders will require a governmental decision, we look for forums where those stakeholders can engage with public decision makers. A forum can be authorized by a government body, or it can be non-governmental but influential.
  • Convener: the availability of a credible organization, group, or individual who can bring stakeholders together and support a legitimate dialogue. In some cases, there is a clearly recognized and acceptable convener – a public agency or elected official, well-respected nonprofit or business leader – but in others there may not be anyone who is perceived as impartial and legitimate by all the key stakeholders, or anyone willing to step forward to promote dialogue and collaboration.
  • Representation: the ability of stakeholders to organize themselves and participate in a collaborative process. Some stakeholders may be able to represent themselves very effectively (a neighborhood association or coalition of environmental groups), while others may not (day laborers coming from several different communities or children who have views on the future of education).

In the New Jersey community, we found some strong enabling conditions and others that were more challenging. Within the town, leaders from all subgroups seemed open to collaboration. An existing community association (founded to address community issues) could create an informal forum and serve as convener. This approach would only be successful, though, if the group broadened its leadership and involved decision-makers. Representation was also potentially difficult: for example, not all Orthodox residents felt represented by existing leaders, but few wished to air differences outside their community. Finally, jurisdiction was perhaps the most challenging because the most problematic conflicts were occurring in surrounding communities, but no regional forums or convener existed to support collaboration at that level. The lack of an appropriate regional forum has been a significant barrier to advancing collaboration.


Along with enabling conditions, we look at catalysts –  immediate factors that can help spur on a collaborative process. The three we think are most significant are:

  • Poor BATNAs (hurting stalemate): A stakeholder’s BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) is the way that a stakeholder assesses the benefits of acting in an adversarial way or participating in a negotiated or collaborative process. A stakeholder with a strong BATNA in the midst of a controversy typically believes that adversarial action (or inaction) is the best course to meet their interests. A stakeholder with a weak BATNA feels the costs of the adversarial status quo and may be willing to try collaboration. When most or all key stakeholders have poor BATNAs, they are in what is sometimes called a “hurting stalemate.” In these situations, the opportunity for collaboration is significant. When all or any key stakeholders have strong BATNAs, the chances for collaboration are more limited.
  • Stakeholder initiative: Whether or not there is a full stalemate, some stakeholders may decide to explore collaboration, testing the waters with their allies and even with adversaries. Leaders (formal or informal) may feel that the risks of continuing an adversarial approach are mounting, and that their leadership may be challenged if they are not seen to be seeking a better way. Influentials (members of a group who are close to leaders and/or who have voice and visibility to many constituents) may also take the initiative by reaching out to their own leaders, other influentials, and/or constituents. These individuals can raise awareness of the costs of the status quo and call for consideration of a collaborative approach. Constituents themselves may take the initiative, by challenging leaders directly or by withdrawing from the fight (not going to the rally, not donating to the cause, etc.).
  • Third party initiative: Sometimes an “outsider” to the conflict (someone who has not taken a side) can act as a catalyst, whether by changing the calculus of BATNAs, offering to convene, or proposing a solution. Outsiders may be motivated to help resolve the controversy through collaboration, as what Bill Ury would call “Third Siders.” They may also have a strong interest in a particular outcome, such as a developer who wants to resolve a local land use controversy in a way that allows for new construction. Whatever their motivations, outsiders can sometimes act in ways that influence stakeholders to move toward collaboration.

In the New Jersey case, we found that key stakeholders were beginning to see the status quo as problematic – while stakeholders in the town saw the “problem” differently, many recognized that they needed to work together if they were going experience progress. The town also had strong stakeholder and third party engagement for seeking collaborative solutions, including the community association and support from local business leaders. However, on the regional level, no similar catalysts had been activated.

A Snapshot of What is Possible

When we look at a controversy or conflict at a moment in time, we take a snapshot of the enabling conditions and catalysts. In the most difficult cases, that snapshot may lead us to a pessimistic view of what is possible, or we may see the thread of a path forward. Whatever our assessment, we keep in mind that enabling conditions can shift, and so can catalysts.

The assessment process conducted in the New Jersey town had a positive impact on the ripeness for collaboration.  It highlighted that town stakeholders felt it was important to expand their network, turn down the heat in debates about education funding and land use, and work together to counteract anti-Semitism and cultural misunderstanding. However, the assessment did not include regional decisionmakers, and regional jurisdictional limitations and lack of catalyst have thus far prevented parties from engaging in collaboration on a broader level. It is too early to tell if the combination of enabling conditions and catalysts will result in deeper dialogue, and ultimately collaboration around a unified vision for the region.

This experience showed us that CBI’s assessment process itself can help to shift conditions, by drawing on the breakthrough collaboration framework. By painting a shared picture of the situation, the report helped to build understanding and trust across groups and pointed to opportunities for mutual gain. Recommendations for how to catalyze collaboration in the town were based on creative ideas raised by stakeholders and offered suggestions for joint actions that the community group has begun to implement.  Expanding the assessment to the surrounding communities could be a pathway to designing an appropriate forum and building stakeholder support for collaboration.

Small Steps can be Breakthroughs 

Sometimes the first steps in breaking through to the table are small ones. As we seek to clarify the set of necessary conditions and catalysts for bringing stakeholders together, we recognize that the same ingredients that help stakeholders interact effectively – trust building, creativity, negotiation and joint action – can also be put to good use from the very beginning of the process. Through assessment and dialogue about the possibility for collaboration, we can help stakeholders come together to begin discussing the issues. That initial conversation itself can be their first breakthrough.

We would be very interested in hearing from others who have explored enabling conditions, catalysts, or other factors that have helped stakeholders get to the table.