What do I do when I do what I do?

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(Activity 2.6)

It seems it is important that I get my head around this question.  I have decided to do it through iterative questioning – in problem solving, there is a way of looking at causes called the 5 Whys – essentially you keep asking why to every level of answer.  I am going to use a similiar approach but ask “And, what do I do when I do that?” to see how far I get.

I guess I start with “What do I do?”

My job is to coordinate a partnership so that the partners in that partnership can work together effectively to improve health and wellbeing of adults living in a particular local authority area in the UK.

I think of this coordination role from a couple of perspectives.  Firstly, I coordinate the governance structures of the partnership – making sure they work well together as an interrelated set of multi-agency ‘committees’ with appropriate involvement from relevant stakeholders.   Secondly, I coordinate the strategic processes of the partnership – making sure these processes work in a way that enables all to be involved.  These both include working with other people in related coordination roles.

Yes, but what does that entail?

This involves:

  • relating to people individually or in groups and using verbal and written communication for finding out; informing; asking; requesting; negotiating; recommending; influencing; and, pre-empting and managing conflict.
  • making policy happen, which entails “devising, advocating, drafting, negotiating, interpreting, enacting, monitoring or reviewing public policy” (Budd et al, 2006,1*).

Lots of verbs there!

And, so what do I do?

I arrange meetings; I service meetings; I attend meetings; I design and facilitate workshops so others’ have productive conversations; I read documents and papers; I write documents and papers; I read emails; I send emails; I make phone calls; I receive phone calls; I speak to people; I listen to people; I timetable actions; I coordinate actions to happen according to the timetables; I get information from people on actions and their impact; I report that information elsewhere; I learn; I assimiliate; I analyse; I synthesise; I make sense of what is going on.

But what do I do when I do that?

Here are a couple of examples:

The other day I was in a meeting where I was more of a listener and observer than an active contributor – as I had no particular role in influencing or managing the meeting it gave me the opportunity to try and ‘observe’ what I was doing.  It was only a small meeting with four other people.  I was the most ‘junior’ person there. In part I focussed on the dynamic – I tried to work out whether the meeting was starting with a consensus on the topic being discussed or whether there was likely to be some negotiation or even conflict.  I also considered where each of the individuals seemed to be ‘coming from’ – what their particular perspective and expertise was in relation to the topic and what they seemed to be offering in terms of the next steps.  I was also checking my own reaction, like an inner dialogue – at one point I remember thinking that one of the people at the meeting was ‘interfering’ into someone else’s work area but then pulled myself up by reminding myself that he was taking public action.  I’d summarise that as sensing; appreciating others’ perspectives; testing my own perspective.

As this ‘observing myself’ activity went so well, I attempted to do it again the following day.  This was in a larger meeting of about 10 people most of whom were more senior than me but I am recognised by them with particular expertise to offer.  The difference is that in this meeting, I need to get some particular things agreed – I needed to influence.  I observed the dynamic and tone of the meeting and then adapted my approach to fit into it.  When I was concerned by the way the conversation was going, I thought about whether or not that particular point was one I had to ‘win’ or whether it was okay to let it go and focus energies on other elements.  The other thing I noticed I did was bring in others’ perspectives when I was making a point “if we do it this way, then it fits with your interest and your interest as well as mine”.  I’d summarise that as sensing; appreciating others’ perspectives; influencing.

And a theoretical perspective…

This is a bit of a sidestep, but there are two pieces of academic work which I find really useful when I think about what I do what I do.  I can’t really remember how I found them.

The first is work by Vangen and Huxhum who have written a great book called Managing to Collaborate (I am sure the pun is intended).  They have carried out action research working alongside people in partnership coordination roles.  One of their areas of working looked at leadership enactment for collaborative working**.  They identified two perspectives in operation – the first is leadership activities from the spirit of collaboration and involves verbs such as empowering, embracing, mobilising.  The other perspective entails more manipulative activities and playing the politics which they label as collaborative thuggery!  They say that the latter perspective is a necessary pragmatic response.  I always think that there is a tension between the ideological perspective and the more pragmatic one – I’d get a pretty bad reputation if I always worked in the ‘thuggery’ mode.

The second is an paper by Paul Williams called “The competent boundary spanner”***.  In the paper Williams describes a post-modern form of organisation as one which is regarded as a system rather than a hierarchy and requires governance rather than administration.  In this form of organisation, you need leadership that is facilitative and evokes collaboration.  This really resonates with the approach I take.

*Budd, L., Charlesworth, J. and Paton, R. (2006) “Making policy happen”, The Open University/Routledge, Milton Keynes/Abingdon

** Vangen, S. and Huxham, C. (2003) “Enacting leadership for collaborative advantage: Dilemmas of ideology and pragmatism in the activities of partnership managers“, British Journal of Management, Vol. 14, S61–S76.

***Williams, P. (2002) “The competent boundary spanner“, Public Administration, Vol. 80, No. 1, pp103-124.

3 thoughts on “What do I do when I do what I do?

  1. Hi Helen
    Much appreciate your being well ahead of me on TU812! I also facilitate partnerships, albeit in international development. Do you know the paper by Ranade & Hudson (2003) on boundary spanners? It feels a key piece. Now my point: I have seen much ‘collaborative thuggery’ but have 2 questions about it. One, it just reflects power relations and reverts to old models of inter-organisational relationships (eg subcontracting)? Two, is it possible to go beyond it because of ‘systemically desirable’ wider goals and, in effect, prisoner’s dilemma makes it culturally feasible? What do you think? Ian

  2. Hi Ian

    I have seen a paper by Ranade and Hudson but it was not specifically on boundary spanners – do you have the full reference – I’ll add it on to the every growing reading pile!

    With respect to ‘collaborative thuggery’, I think Vangen and Huxham coined the term more with respect to every day playing the politics and manoevering that partnership coordinators do because they hold a unique perspective of, and often have unique responsibility for, what is good for the partnership. Others are perhaps more concerned with what is good for their own organisation as a member of the partnership. For example, I know that sometimes I manage a process in a particular way that will ensure that two people end up in a conversation together that I judge will be helpful, even if they did not know it themselves at the outset. Quite often I am not in a position of authority, people are often more senior than myself – it is kind of leadership by stealth! I think the more that I, and others around me, are involved in systems thinking and practice then the less collaborative thuggery will have to come into play.



  3. Thanks, Helen.

    Here’s the reference:
    Ranade, W., & Hudson, B. (2003). Conceptual Issues in Inter-Agency Collaboration. Local Government Studies, 29(3), 32-50
    I’ll go and read V&H (and not get distracted too much from TMA2!)
    best, Ian

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