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4 Winning ways to evaluate a potential co-creating partner

If you’re well networked, It’s easy to find people that will contribute ideas to develop a strategy. There's nothing us big picture thinkers like more than having a say in shaping the direction and approach of a bold vision. Especially, when that vision supports mission-driven work.

As ideas abound, the energy ramps up. And a collective chorus of yesses ensues.

Discussions are concluded with an enthusiastic proclamation, "Let's do it!"

Because no one wants to be a wet blanket.

While there's excitement for the vision. There is often a complete lack of clarity on how the strategy will actually be implemented. Who will do what, when. What resources are available. And how people will be held accountable for following through on their tasks. Discussing and agreeing on these components is where things tend to fall apart. And as a result, the vision is not achieved.

Perhaps you're familiar with situations like this?

According to Judith E. Glaser, this is the primary risk of co-creating conversations - all talk and no action.

While it's easy to find people that will excitedly contribute ideas that build enthusiasm, it's a lot harder to identify strategic partners who will actually work with you to advance a shared vision. That's because talking about and working on the nitty-gritty is less enthralling for most idea people.

Working through and getting agreement on the details takes time. This is where conflict often starts as people can be quick to follow knee-jerk reactions, which leads to getting stuck in a position. For many, due to a lack of skills, comfort or desire, it's easier to be an ostrich - if your heads in the sand, there's nothing to worry about. Until the problem escalates.

I have seen this kind of situation unfold countless times. This type of conflict is a classic, good people doing bad things type of moment. Everyone is well-meaning, but when things get tough, people tend to point fingers and blame rather than stepping back and investigating what went wrong.

Brené Brown calls this armored leadership. And it makes sense. When conflict abounds, the desire to preserve and protect one's self-interest is an innate human reaction. Equally innate is the desire to connect and belong. Unfortunately, we live in a society that has normalized armored leadership over experiencing genuine connection.

This was the situation a client had found themselves in not too long ago. Luckily, they were able to move past finger-pointing and blame in order to do a post-mortem of the failed project. As I listened to the discussion and lessons learned, I recalled the four tangible things leaders can do to assess someone's capacity to co-create before agreeing to take the plunge.

Here are the four things I look at when evaluating such a potential partnership:

1. Rubber meets the road

I look for previous examples of when a potential partner took action to implement a big idea. And I listen for the level of detail they offer in how they made it happen. If they're vague I will press for more specifics. If they aren't able to offer any, I make note of my concerns. If they're unable to offer attention to detail it makes me wonder what their role actually was in turning the vision into action. Ultimately, I want to know that I can trust them to break down the vision into actionable steps that they will follow through on completing.

Years ago I worked with a friend that was an inspiring visionary. He had great ideas. And while he was willing to lend a helping hand, he was completely unaware of the amount of work it took to turn those ideas into reality. The brunt of the labor fell on myself and a few other collaborators, which was completely unsustainable and led to burnout. He is the reason I look for partners that can offer both ideas and follow through.

One additional thing I will listen for is whether a potential partner uses I vs. we when describing a collaborative effort. When a leader takes credit for other people's contributions it is a red flag. I expect that other people aided in turning a bold vision into reality and if they are not acknowledged I question how self-honest the potential partner is. This is a trick I learned from Adam Grant's book Give and Take and it has proven to be a valuable telltale sign to heed.

2. Flexibility

An important skill in a co-creating partner is flexibility. If they are rigid about the way things have to be done I want to know why. I look for strategic partners that demonstrate a capacity to adapt. Bold visions rarely (if ever) go according to plan. I want to see their nimbleness in action. If they need time to adjust, that's fine, as long as there's an openness to evolving the way things are being done in order to achieve our ultimate goal.

As a consultant that specializes in delivering co-creating retreat experiences, I have learned to flex to best support my client's unique needs and culture. For example, there are many different ways to approach strategic planning. There isn't one right way.

But most consultants insist their clients follow - in my opinion, an overly complicated - process to do their strategic planning. As a result, those plans often end up being expensive dust collectors. By being flexible, I help my clients craft strategic plans that are meaningful and get integrated into their day-to-day.

To help me evaluate the flexibility of a potential co-creator, I listen for comments that shut down conversations like, "Not possible" or "can't be done" or "that'll never work." Then I Double Click by asking, "what do you mean_____is not possible?"

I listen for their explanation. Such deeper explorations help me determine if they demonstrate a willingness to expand their thinking. I value and look for openness in partners.

In addition, I pay attention to their nonverbal communication in response to my request for a deeper inquiry. If someone has a, "because I said so" attitude, exhibits defensiveness or demonstrates visible discomfort I'm concerned.

3. Boundaried

While I want a partner that's flexible, I also don't want a "yes" person. I find that professionals without boundaries are too detached from reality. I want to work with a partner that's capable of establishing priorities and setting realistic expectations. I am all for pushing the limits and testing what's possible. But I'm also in it for the long-haul and don't need to push to the point of insanity.

There is an important distinction to make between being inflexible and being boundaried. Boundaries relate to a deeper set of shared values and beliefs.

I was recently working on a co-creating project where I was responsible for facilitating a meeting around a hot button issue. As we were reviewing the agenda, which included a warmup activity, one of my collaborators said, "Can't we just get down to business?"

In that moment, I had a clear boundary, because getting right down to business and forgoing any effort to make a connection sets us up for failure. Creating conditions for a connection to occur can happen in a few minutes. I was happy to be flexible about what activity we did to create that sense of connection. But eliminating such an important piece of the process was a boundary I was not willing to cross.

When I'm evaluating a potential partner, I want to know their boundaries. What's non-negotiable to them and why? What are the values that will guide how they show up?

4. Open communication

I want to see how a potential partner handles conflict. If we don't agree (and I expect there will be times when we don't), I want to work with someone who is open and willing to talk through a misunderstanding before it escalates.

I will look for behaviors that are concerning like stonewalling, shutting down, blaming or blowing up. Then I will see if they own their behavior or not. It's fine if they have human moments and lose it (I know I do sometimes). But it's unacceptable to me if they won't acknowledge such moments or won't work to resolve their own issues.

On occasion, I have encountered co-creating partners that say they're open to navigating disagreements but truly practiced armored leadership. They will do this by appeasing in one moment. Deflecting in another. And ultimately justifying their ill-advised behavior.

One partner I worked with often said things like, "you have to admit" or "in my defense." And she always, ALWAYS had to have the last word, which was her way of exerting power over everyone else and closed down future conversations from being constructive.

In contrast, I recently experienced conflict with a co-creating partner where we ended our conversations expressing genuine gratitude to each other for talking things out. We both owned our missteps, learning from the misunderstanding, and committed to correcting our behavior moving forward.

I don't just want a co-creating partner that says they're open to having difficult conversations in order to navigate misunderstandings. I want to see evidence of it in action.

How do you ensure that potential contributors have the capacity to effectively co-create?

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