Better Together: How the UN - and you - can crack collaboration to take on global challenges

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The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, was in London recently. He made a comment that is, on the face of it, common sense. For UN agencies and offices to be as effective as possible, he said, they must accept “a much more clear accountability - not only in relation to what each one does in accordance to its mandate, but in relation to what each one does to serve the objectives of the collective action of the UN.”

So, keep your eyes on the prize. Nothing surprising there.

But, by my reading anyway, the Secretary General was in fact saying something quite radical. The collective impact of UN agencies is undermined by each one pursuing narrow institutional concerns. This is not particular to the UN: organisational egos too often get in the way of achieving those organisations’ shared goals.

Whether you’re dealing with cybercrime or human trafficking, climate change or the global refugee crisis, the change you’re seeking won’t be achieved by any one organisation, no matter how powerful – not even the UN. The change will come from collaboration across a network – but only if disparate actors are brought together strategically around a common mission.

In the standard operating procedure for working in networks to achieve change, there’s a commonly-occurring flaw: the first question that each organisation, agency, or individual asks – quite understandably – is ‘what can I do to fix this problem?’ Constructed in this way, though, one key question doesn’t get asked until it’s too late: are our efforts sufficient or even necessary to deliver the change you’re seeking?

Your goal is to deliver change in the world. So that’s where the conversation needs to start: what is the change we’re seeking, how will that specific change come about, and who is best placed to effect that change or to influence the decision-makers?

The challenge is that traditional modes of organising are focused on maximising agreement and minimising friction, rather than maximising impact. Changing that won’t necessarily happen without some determined effort by specific individuals. That’s why what the Secretary General says is so exciting: with his leadership, he can change the way the UN works with others (and with itself, across the agencies) to overcome global problems.

What would this look like? As Tom sets out in United Networks, “[t]he UN can set an example – ceding power to strategic convenors of specific campaigns – and lead the way for more effective coalition work and greater collective impact.”

Here are some lessons from organisations like mine that play this role of strategic convenor – or, as the more fashionable term goes, systems entrepreneur:

Applying these lessons has overcome intractable challenges for people living in warzones – helping secure agreement for the peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic and for aid to reach cities in Syria, sometimes for the first time in years. And it can help unlock effective collaboration on other causes where collective action is not cracking the problem at hand. As the Secretary General said in London, ‘[t]he truth is that there is no way to address these problems if you don’t do it in an integrated way.’ Advancing justice in the current world disorder will require us to work together – so let’s do it in a way that turns our individual efforts into smarter, more creative, more powerful collaborations.

For more information on this approach and how you can apply it, check out the Handbook for Change.

By Nick Martlew, UK Director of Crisis Action