The Nuts and Bolts of CoLab

February 16, 2017

In spring of 2016, Mary Davis Hamlin joined the CNE team to lead our initiatives focused on collaboration—CoLab. I recently sat down with Mary Davis to better understand CoLab and the coaching work she does as part of CNE. 

Andrew: What is CoLab?

Mary Davis: CoLab’s purpose is to support folks in all the various ways of collaborating—across sectors, between or within organizations, or within smaller groups or one-on-one. CNE has been doing this kind of work for a long time, so I don’t want to take too much credit, but in the last six months I’ve been leading this focused initiative on collaboration and worked with coalitions and individual organizations, coached executive directors, and conducted training programs. What shape CoLab takes depends on the needs of the organization or individual I’m working with.

Andrew: So, the name, “CoLab,” isn’t just short for collaboration?

Mary Davis: It is. But it also serves a learning lab for us and for our members. We wanted to capture the idea that we’re working to figure these things out alongside others in the community. Hence, the “lab.”

Andrew: That really gets at this idea of CNE and CNE members as “partner practitioners.” We face many of same challenge they do, while helping them through those challenges. What are some of the challenges that organizations face around collaboration?

Mary Davis: Really the challenges are challenges themselves. What I mean by that is a lot of the time people don’t do well at solving problems. We don’t involve the right people. We reIy on ineffective processes. We don’t explore the core interests of different perspectives and bring in data to support it. And we don’t work hard to come up with elegant solutions. In complex times or facing a knotty problem, it is easy to slap a Band-Aid on something. We try quick fixes, but they don’t get much buy-in because they aren’t based on a wise and thorough understanding of the problem. And that’s what we need if we are going to come up with sustainable solutions.

Andrew: Then how do you fix the problem of solving problems?

Mary Davis: This is really what’s at the core of the consulting and facilitation I do as part of CoLab. We used to call it “problem taming,” but really it’s about getting the right people talking about the right issues in the right way. And this often takes an outside perspective, a neutral party. But the effect can be really amazing. By framing the conversation in the right way, we can take a group of people who have been getting nowhere—maybe they’ve spent years talking past each other or really fighting over issues, and suddenly people are sitting around table together speaking to one another, really hearing one another, and working to understand the nuances of the situation. That’s when growth and change begins to pick up momentum. It’s can be quite magical.

Andrew: In some ways, it sounds like large scale collaboration boils down to working well with others.

Mary Davis: Yeah, that sounds right. A fundamental element of being an effective person, much less a leader, is an ability to work with others towards some sought goals. That might take place across sectors or across negotiation tables or across the dinner table.

Andrew: You’re also a certified coach, which has allowed you develop coaching services as part of CoLab. What does the coaching look like in this context?

Mary Davis: Coaching is one-one-one and I love that. But it’s not a therapy session. It works on an educational model. It provides a highly personalized learning context that’s tailored to fit a client’s personal needs. It’s like a training on steroids, because I get to focus a single learner.

Andrew: Who is coaching for and what do people get out to this experience?

Mary Davis: Anyone could benefit from it. But I work a lot with Executive Directors. A lot of EDs don’t get the opportunity set aside time and place to focus on learning, growth, and intentional thinking around the they face challenges in their work. Coaching offers them a safe setting to do that. For that reason, I don’t set a curriculum. They set their own goals and I tailor sessions to these goals and their learning. I’m really just here to support that process through questions and insights. I love coaching because it allows for really focused learning in a safe setting. And it’s an honor to be with people that allow themselves to become vulnerable and move towards new growth. That’s what’s amazing to me.

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