By Melisa Luymes
It is often said that if you want to go faster, go alone, but if you want to go further, go together. And while teamwork sounds nice on paper, it is painfully messy in reality. As I’m writing this, I’m mourning (and scratching my head) over two working relationships that fell apart over the last months.
If so much of our work relies on people, why aren’t we getting better at getting along?
Part of the issue, I think, is that we don’t speak frankly enough. When we discuss our collaborative projects, we just tell the pleasant highlights and fail to mention the hard-won lessons. And for others to be able to speak frankly, we need to listen to them generously. By that, I mean assuming positive intent and not jumping to any conclusions.
Last month, I gave a short presentation at the Conservation Drainage Network’s meeting in Indiana about the collaboration I’m involved with at the Huronview Demo Farm. If you’ve been reading the The Rural Voice, you’ll know about the Huronview innovative drainage demonstration on the field behind the Huronview Health Unit in Clinton, ON.
In short, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen there. The field is owned by the County of Huron, farmed by a committee of the Huron Soil & Crop Improvement Association, was installed by four local contractors, to a design that was made with a multi-stakeholder committee. The installation was led by and is now monitored by the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority, who is also starting to involve provincial and university research as well.
It was an unprecedented partnership, with nearly infinite opportunities for tension. While the installation was successful and the partners continue to meet to oversee the research and operation of the site, it hasn’t been without its headaches and heartaches.
I often joked there must’ve been something in the water in Huron County that made this project work, but I think there are some key lessons I’ve taken from it.
Take time to build a foundation. For nearly two decades, the Huron County Water Protection Steering Committee has been meeting quarterly to discuss local water-related issues. The County of Huron built a multi-stakeholder group with representation from agriculture, industry, environmental groups and cottage owner associations. From their years of meeting, they built the Huron Clean Water Project that now funds landowners to do property improvements, and the County invests $500,000 a year! Even if stakeholders felt that all the meetings weren’t amounting to much, it all pays off when they can quickly band together to meet opportunities.
Prioritize the priorities of all players. You might think that contractors and conservation authority staff would have nothing in common, but both of them have to deliver improved water quality… or their jobs could be on the line. That makes this personal. There were five main players on the Huronview committee, and we all knew we needed all of us to stay at the table. That meant making the other’s priorities our own.
• Conservation Authorities: water quality in their watersheds
• Researchers and academics: quality data and published results
• County councillors and staff: keeping all of the “groups” and ratepayers happy
• Farmers and industry: drainage, yield, profitability and sustainability
• Drainage contractors & industry: drainage, job security and social license
Align on a short-term goal. While the team may have had common goals of sustainability and future hopes for a better environment, there was a more immediate project: Demo Day. With dates set well in advance, we all worked towards a successful installation in front of hundreds of people. Having a tangible short-term project helped bring the group together while the food (and beverages) that celebrated a job well done was also important.
Don’t believe everything you think. This one is the “inner work” and it is critical for anyone who wants to work with others. We come to conversations with ideas about the other, based on their job, tone, appearance or something they once said or did. We build up “stories” about them in our heads. Not surprisingly, we tend to only see evidence that justifies our story of that person, and this can have devastating results on communities, teams and collaborations. Trust is the lubricant of teams, and it takes a lot of work to fill up after it has run out.
This is where I try to practice the The Four Agreements: 1) Be impeccable with your word, 2) Don’t take anything personally, 3) Don’t make assumptions and 4) Always do your best. I highly recommend this book by Don Miguel Ruiz. Part of me wants to enforce these principles to all the people I have to work with, beat them over the head with it … but (sigh) it all starts with me. I’m the only person I can change here.
If I can change, I trust that the situation will also change. Perhaps this is the real work of our lives: to become easier to work with.
A note: Thank you to those who reached out after my last column in February to say it resonated with them… or just to check if I was OK. That helped too. Perhaps people aren’t so bad after all. ◊