8 barriers to effective shared strategy

Nicola Pritchard

My colleague Charlotte recently shared news about an exciting new project we’ve kicked off with The Childhood Trust, exploring how best to support organisations in the children’s sector to strengthen their strategies, individually and collectively, to make positive transitions through this crisis and beyond.

We’ve been speaking to lots of leaders in the children’s sector to explore the common issues and barriers they face when it comes to shared strategy. Below we take a look at 8 common barriers, and reflect on what sort of support might help shift the dial in future.

1 Profound ideological differences that are often left unaddressed

We heard of there being a deep desire for organisations to work together, however good intention is often curtailed by differences in strategy and approach. We heard of the need to have open conversations about organisations’ ideological perspectives to find where there are areas of agreement and ensure organisations are comfortable sitting with their areas of difference. This is particularly important when addressing such an emotive topic as the welfare of children. In partnership working there is a risk that groups hide behind high level statements like ‘helping children to fulfil their potential’ which is very difficult to translate into meaningful practice. Surfacing and being honest about these differences is critical in allowing organisations to find where it is possible to do something together.

2 Lack of shared vision

One of the key problems highlighted by a number of interviewees was the lack of shared vision. When working with others, a partnership can rapidly be taken over by one individual organisation’s agenda, that not everyone agrees with. Without having an overarching vision which sets out the key priorities, it’s often the organisation that shouts the loudest that dictates the shared strategy.

3 Lack of clarity over individual organisational roles within the wider system

A lack of shared vision is also problematic when it comes to organisations understanding their particular role in fulfilling that mission. Several people spoke to us about organisations typically developing their own strategies in siloes, informed by their own contextual analysis which was dictated by the resources they had available. This results in fundamental tensions in how organisations see themselves in the world in relation to the work of others, and leads to overambitious targets being set that no individual organisation is ever able to meet.

3 The issue of additionality

Several organisations spoke to us about their experience of shared strategy typically involving a one off piece of work or project, which is rarely embedded in the ongoing core work they do. Organisations often therefore tend to come into discussions not expecting to change or transform in any meaningful way, but to simply add to what they already do. As with the need for frank discussions about what is realistic and achievable, there also needs to be an inherent assumption that organisations will need to stop or change some of the core work they do, and that there will be resources needed to be put into it for it to have a chance of success.

4 The cult of the CEO

A number of interviewees flagged issues at a leadership level and of there being ‘a lack of humility’. Interestingly, since the crisis hit there have been many stories of inter organisational tensions being eased, with a collective recognition that everyone had to muck in. However, we’re also hearing that this spirit of collaboration hasn’t translated into business as usual projects. Smaller charities interviewed spoke of the tensions that often arise between lead bidders and subcontractors. They described the difficult power dynamics, and a feeling of being left out – and sometimes cheated out – of important and impactful strategic decisions.

5 Misplaced issues of trust

Linked to the tensions described above, there is much discussion about the lack of public trust in charities, but we don’t often reflect as much on the lack of trust between charities themselves. This is of course driven by competition over shrinking pots of funding, and the scenarios described above, but also by underestimating the time that is involved in building strong relationships with others – something that often falls to the CEO and which is easily sidelined by other urgent tasks.

6 Entrenched competitive mindset

Linked again to the issues of trust, we heard from interviewees that organisations are so moulded in the competitive mindset – driven so powerfully by funding and policy influence – that they are hard wired to now behave in this way.

‘It is a survival instinct. Organisations can engage in a useful discussion on collaborative work, but there is another track record playing which interprets everything through the lens of their own organisation’. 

7 Difficulty stepping back

We heard that the competitive mindset is also driven by a positive desire and intention for an organisation to feel and be seen to be making a difference. Staff are understandably very invested in what they are doing, which can make it particularly hard to step back and join a collective effort, especially when the collective effort isn’t 100% aligned with an organisation’s own strategy. If it isn’t a natural fit, organisations tend to shift around it – giving it what is necessary, but not more.

8 Lack of effective intelligence sharing and evidence driven decision making across sectors

Particularly at a policy level we heard of there being great difficulty in obtaining accurate and meaningful needs data from the government, which has encouraged a collegiate spirit of intelligence sharing. We also heard of there being poor communications channels between central government, local government, and the trickle down to charities. It is particularly difficult for smaller charities to keep abreast of the fast-moving decisions being made. An interviewee we spoke to called for the sector to ‘put a stop to policy makers favouring certain charity leaders, for civil servants to stop hosting back door meetings, and put an end to individual patronage’. The interviewee also added that charities need to ‘stop taking PBR contracts which mean they deliver and perpetuate the problems in the system they are trying to change’.

So where are the opportunities for doing things differently?

Many of the challenges shared above are deep rooted, will not be fixed by any single strategic programme, and will take a long time to shift. When reflecting on how they come together and the ways they can be addressed, there seemed to be clear alignment with the Stanford Social Innovation’s  ‘5 Conditions for Collective Impact’: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communications and backbone support organisations. Below are some reflections on what these five areas might look like in the context of the barriers we’ve encountered:

A common agenda – starting with a clear shared vision between organisations that are working to tackle similar problems within the system, and frank conversations about what can be realistically be achieved, by whom and how

Shared measurement systems – starting from a place of shared intelligence – universal access to data relating to children’s needs, and how demand is changing over the crisis and into recovery

Mutually reinforcing activities – starting with a shared understanding of who’s working on what, and where the overlaps occur

Continuous communication – starting with an opening up of communications channels between the public and third sector, and platforms that enable ongoing sharing of intelligence over specific challenges such as upcoming government legislation and economic forecasting

Backbone support organisations – the need for an independent but informed voice that brings organisations together to achieve the above, creates a shared space for reflection and facilitates discussions to address some of the uncomfortable tensions that have been surfaced through this research

We’re continuing to reflect on all of this in the coming weeks and would love to hear new perspectives. Please do get in touch with us if you think we’re missing a trick or two!

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