Seeing clients and projects thrive is one of the great pleasures of this job, one I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy lately in the context of a tricky catchment management challenge. In this instance the collaboration is up and running well, the various stakeholders are committed to working together and innovative ideas are coming to fruition.

But four years ago when I first talked to this client – a District Manager in a state department – things were very different. In my first phone conversation with her I could hear it in her voice: Frustration, exasperation, and real self-doubt. Charged with tackling the task of improving water quality in a complex waterway, this manager had hit the wall and did not know how to move forward.

As we talked some things became clearer. “The problem is”, said my client, “every man and his dog keeps coming to me to tell me how to improve the water quality. But every suggestion is different and I don’t think we know what we are trying to solve”.

This insight was a genuine breakthrough. It illustrated so clearly our powerful human urge to get to work solving problems – even before we know what the problem really is. Once we had talked this over, I could hear a change in my client’s voice. “That’s right” she said. “That is why we haven’t been able to make progress! It’s because we are all trying to solve different things. No wonder I’ve been feeling so stuck.”

And then the real admission of vulnerability: “I was beginning to think I’m a terrible manager”.

With these realisations made, we were able to embark on our Collaboration Builder program, which brings everyone together to focus on the problem, rather than their pet ‘solution’. Using some simple collaborative tools, a cross-section of stakeholders was able to let go of the urge to ‘fix it’, and to embark on a slower, richer journey of building a shared understanding of just what it was that contributes to poor water quality. Through a series of discussions they built a shared picture of the water quality ‘system’ and some of the forces at play.

Importantly, this process helped everyone see that their solution was likely to be only a part of the puzzle at best. And this realisation helped grow a powerful commitment to work together on the deeper drivers of water quality outcomes.

Four years later the commitment continues, the project is thriving and with various awards under their belt, the success is evident. Collaboration Builder is designed around the idea that defining the problem together is the engine of successful collaboration. It is nice to be able to look back at this project and see just how powerful an engine it is.