One goal of Raising Places was to build collaborative capacity within communities. We wanted design team members - local leaders from various sectors - to connect meaningfully with each other. The hope was for team members to continue to work together well into the future of other local initiatives that arise even after Raising Places.

Now, we would be naive to think that our process was the first time that community leaders had collaborated to advance local initiatives. Indeed, many of our conveners and design team members had already worked together on planning efforts. But we sought to actualize our theory that bringing a diverse group of people to the table, intentionally supporting their personal growth and transformation and helping them to create a vision that was stronger than any one organization might have built alone, would ultimately build better more lasting relationships.

Why did this process work?

1. Set shared expectations

Many meetings start by establishing ground rules. These are often common-sense gestures toward civility that are shared out by the facilitator, then never mentioned again. At the start of our kickoff labs, we asked each team member to choose a shared expectation to present to the room and tell us what it meant to them.

During the Kickoff Lab, Hudson design team member Zebi Williams discusses why she selected a particular shared expectation.

Many folks were struck by the “notice power dynamics” shared expectation – it reads, “Be aware of how you use your privilege, whether by monopolizing or disengaging. Tend first to your own balance of talking and listening.” The team member sharing it said, “I never realized that when I stay quiet or check out, I’m exercising my power.” Others were intrigued by the “lean into productive discomfort” shared expectation – it reads, “Our team is diverse precisely because it brings friction; friction sparks new insights. If we stay comfortable, we’ll never move beyond the status quo.” The discussion of these shared principles provided a way for the team to come to terms with the fact that this would be hard, but worthwhile, work.

The shared expecations poster was hung throughout the lab to center teamwork in the agreed upon principles.

These guidelines were meant to surface some of the common bumps in the road surrounding collaboration, and they served as a helpful scaffold to smooth those tricky moments. Throughout the labs, we would hear design team members say things like, “Sorry to be late - my kid is sick, and I’m just bringing my whole self.” Or, “I know the session didn’t go as well as you wanted, but hey - no shame, no blame.” This shared language helped people deal with what could have otherwise been moments of conflict.

2. Less talking, more doing

We often find that when people say “collaboration,” what they really mean is a group of people sitting around talking. We know that dialogue is important for building trust, empathy and insight. However, we often find that the ratio of talking to doing is pretty skewed towards talking. For us, collaboration is truly about doing together - working, iterating, making decisions, brainstorming - and the talking is just a means to that end.

Brandon Santos (left) and Zebi Williams (right) work together during the pilot planning actiity at the Action Lab in Hudson.

The Raising Places labs were pretty productive and hands-on. We asked the design team of 12 to get into small groups of 3-4 people and those small groups did a significant amount of work together, both in and out of the labs. They wrote research plans, recruited end users, went with each other on observations and interviews and shared notes. They wrote insights and How Might We statements, decided on concepts to test, and made prototypes. They joined each other on coaching calls with us. They divvied up the work according to their capacity and connections, and they learned to function as a unit.

We wanted design team members to see that working together is better than working alone because everyone brings something unique to the table. We’ve also seen that working together is a good way to put people on the same team - there’s no time for arguments when you’ve got a plan to write!

We even had a situation where two design team members expressed to us beforehand and privately, that they didn’t get along. With shared interests, they ended up in the same small group and when work started, they realized that they each had things to offer the group and needed to have a working relationship. One of them wrote in their evaluation something to the effect of, “I ended up working really well with someone that I thought I’d hate working with.”

3. End users as neutralizer

No matter how happy a group may be working together, there are always going to be moments of disagreement. Sometimes we resolve disagreement with a vote, particularly if what we’re debating is from within a set of clearly-defined options. But other times, people just have conflicting opinions, and those can be are harder to solve.

Rather than enabling power struggles, we find that having the overarching emphasis placed on end users - be they parents, children, teachers, or any number of other community residents - is actually the most helpful tool for collaboration. With this tactic, most arguments can be resolved easily if we just ask the audience. It doesn’t matter as much what I think, or what you think - it matters more so what the user thinks. This is why we conduct research, share prototypes and conduct pilots with residents.

North Wilkesboro convener Jenn Wages asks a group of third graders to brainstorm ideas to create better housing in the town.

This is also why it’s helpful to have design team members who are either residents or have deep connections to residents. We saw time and again when a group debated about something child-related, they would ask for thoughts from someone in the room who directly works with children. Ultimately, being human-centered means putting your own perspectives aside, and working from the perspectives of end users - in this case, children and families. This eliminates the need for one side to be right or wrong. Relying on the experiences of end users can resolve disputes far faster than two designers talking it out.

We know cross-sector collaboration is challenging, and this makes sense - every individual comes with language, customs and worldview of their field. But by setting shared expectations, asking people to work together (not just talk together) and valuing the needs of end users highest of all, we’ve found that cross-sector collaboration can be not only productive, but it can be transformative.