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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.