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Building BRIDGEs | Cross-Sectoral Collaboration for Stronger Conservation and Development Outcomes

The Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program, in partnership with USAID’s BRIDGE project, held the third panel in a three-part virtual series featuring researchers and practitioners on lessons learned and entry points for action in the integration of biodiversity conservation, governance, public health, and food security.

Date & Time

May. 19, 2020
9:30am – 11:00am ET


It helps to think of collaboration as a skill to develop, rather than a value to impart, said Francesca Gino, Professor and Unit Head of Negotiation, Organization and Markets at Harvard Business School, at a recent Wilson Center virtual event on the importance of cross-sectoral collaboration. Many organizations make collaboration one of their values, she said. However, this has no substantial effect. “It could be a first step, but on its own it doesn’t create a culture where all of a sudden people are collaborating effectively,” Gino said.

For effective collaboration, strong listening skills are vital. Instead of dominating the conversation, Gino said that collaborators must provide space for others to make contributions. Take a step back and ask questions, she said. Help others further develop their ideas. This creates a space in which a more diverse, thoughtful collection of ideas are introduced, leading to greater productivity. 

Receptiveness is also essential to collaboration, said Gino. Before expressing your own viewpoint, you must acknowledge the contributions of others and thank them for bringing their ideas forward, she said. When collaborating, Gino said that we frequently get defensive about our ideas. “And receptiveness instead is all about going in with the willingness to listen,” she said, “and then present[ing] our own arguments in a way that is really respectful.”

Another aspect of successful collaboration involves finding common ground, or “being bilingual.” To illustrate the concept, Gino shared a story about Bill Riddick, a man who runs charrettes. In 1971, Riddick was asked to facilitate a process to help two groups see eye to eye. One group, led by a Ku Klux Klan leader, fought for maintaining school segregation, and the other, led by a black activist, stood for desegregating the schools. Riddick worked with these opposing groups to facilitate respectful conversations about their differences. “What is beautiful about this story,” Gino said, “is that as the charrette process went on, the two heads of the two sides started discovering that despite their remarkable differences…they had something in common.” Both of these men were dedicated parents who valued the education of their children.

Riddick was able to successfully facilitate this process because he understood both sides, Gino said. As a black man, he knew what racism and discrimination were like. However, he also understood why the KKK member was so set in his beliefs and his desire to be a part of something. By relying on his shared experiences, Riddick was able to bridge the divide between these two groups and enable collaboration. Ultimately, the KKK member tore up his membership card and voted for school integration. He and the black activist became best friends, said Gino.

To create more effective collaborations, conversations must be framed as a persuasion free zone, said Gino, with a shared mindset of “what can we learn from one another.” Braver Angels, an organization that draws together Republicans and Democrats to help bridge the political divide in the United States, begins every workshop by drawing out the differing political views. Rather than ditching these differences, Gino said, the organization aims to bring them to the forefront of the conversation, prompting a reflection into why your beliefs are the way that they are and the biases that come with them.    

The Necessity of Working as a Collective

The problem with the way development professionals typically work, is that it tends to be sectoral, said Tony Pryor, Senior Programming Advisor for the Bureau of Policy, Planning, and Learning at USAID. Within our sectors we often are restricted by both our world views and our expertise. However, problems and topics often demand cross-sectoral attention. “There needs to be a flattening of the hierarchy among the sectors so that they all come in as equals,” said Joshua Goldstein, the Bridge Collaborative Director at The Nature Conservancy. 

Establishing both shared objectives as well as a shared ownership over the results, there is a stronger ambition and excitement around collaborative work, said James Watson, a USAID Development Diplomat in Residence based at Morehouse College, and former USAID Director in Honduras. Creating and recognizing a collective sense of value of everyone’s work is critical. “It’s not just about what we can contribute,” Gino said, “but what the other side can, and how we can work together.”

Successful cross-sectoral engagement demands a clear shared goal, said Lane Pollack, Senior Learning Advisor at USAID. An example of the effectiveness of a clear purpose in collaboration is the cave rescue in July 2018. After exploring a cave in Northern Thailand, the young boys in a youth soccer team were unable to get out. Within days, however, volunteers and experts from around the world had come together to help rescue them. “Everyone was committed to reaching that goal and doing so as fast as they could,” Gino said. “And those conditions created an environment where people were more open to each other’s ideas.”  

Goldstein echoed these ideas and connected the conversation to the first event from this three-part series on biodiversity. What limits the ability of the natural resource sector to partner across sectors, he said, is the lack of clarity on where the linkages are. Collaboration can be a vehicle to help surface these questions and highlight the strong, clear interests for collaborative work in biodiversity conservation and development.

Elevating Curiosity and Learning

To foster collaboration, all the panelists agreed curiosity is needed. Rather than reverting to judgement, which we are quick to do as human beings, Gino said, prioritizing an interest in others and their work provides a platform for more productive cross-sectoral engagement. “You are not going to be the smartest person in the room on every topic,” Goldstein said.

Entering collaborative work with a mindset geared toward learning creates opportunities for new projects and pathways to success. Everything, said Goldstein, should begin with the thought, “What can we learn next?” The most productive work, Watson said, gives people opportunities to learn, grow, and contribute in different ways.

Finding Joy in the Work

Another essential element of collaboration is the idea of bringing joy into the work. All too often collaborations seem to be joyless, said Gino. When you ask people to describe their latest collaboration, they say it was a drag and a really draining experience. So finding moments for laughter, levity, a little bit of fun, and joy, she said, is important. “These collaborations are often like long lasting marriages that have different phases, some easy ones, some more difficult ones,” said Gino. “And so joy can really help us sail through them more effectively.”

Written by Leah Emanuel, edited by Sandra Yin

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Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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