October 22, 2018
 
Collaborations, Like other Ventures, Benefit from Best Practices

All groups, and perhaps especially nonprofits, need to collaborate, but many stumble along the way. The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups provides a practical path forward and ought to be on the bookshelf of everyone who needs to team with others.

Authored by a self-described global justice activist and trainer with decades of experience working with groups, who goes by the name, simply, of Starhawk, The Empowerment Manual provides much more than an intellectual exploration of group success. Dozens of exercises, case studies, and question sets enable readers to hone their approach to collaboration.

Recognizing that groups exist for many reasons, Starhawk counsels them to articulate a vision, because it “lets prospective members know what they might be choosing to join, and it creates a standard against which your decisions can be judged.”

To move ahead, however, a group needs to decide its governance structure, which covers a lot of ground, from how members will treat each other, make decisions, and resolve disputes, to when to hold meetings. As she does throughout the book, the author provides an exercise to help, in this case one focused on establishing governance.

She also gives thoughtful consideration to the role of leaders in groups that by their very nature are defined largely as leaderless. Her key point is that there can be and often are multiple leadership roles in such groups, “not as a quality invested in particular persons, but as a set of roles and functions that we can each step into or back from.”

Starhawk identifies four leadership styles—visionary, coaching, affiliative, and democratic—that build group resonance, connection, and satisfaction, and two styles—pacesetting, and commanding—that can create dissonance, but which also have their uses.

One of the most important points made in The Empowerment Manual is that communication in a collective or collaborative group is more complex and demanding than it is in a hierarchy, precisely because the lines of authority are not clear cut. For that reason, collaborative groups need to pay close attention to communication.

To forestall possible issues, Starhawk suggests that when making decisions or discussing new projects, the group should consider who needs to be consulted – from the start, not when the decisions have been made. Similarly, those who will implement the decision and be affected by it need to be included in the creative process. Finally, once the decision has been made, the group should ask who else needs to be informed and how.

Understanding that conflict is a natural phase of group development, fully one-third of the 265-page book is devoted to understanding and moderating conflict. Again, it provides specific suggestions for resolving conflicts within the group, as well as how to deal with difficult people.

So what makes for good collaborations? According to Starhawk, they’re groups that share a common vision, balance unity with autonomy, reinvent themselves periodically, support their members, and, perhaps paradoxically, embrace conflict rather than avoid it, which lets them resolve issues and move toward realizing a common vision.

The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups is available from New Society Publishers.

Reviewed by Peter Lowy
February 2012


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