Jennifer Bradley got a big response from the Akron Roundtable diners Thursday when she defined collaboration: “Collaboration has been described as an unnatural act between unconsenting adults.”
The Brookings Institution fellow and writer admitted she heard it somewhere else.
The laughs came from many area leaders who probably know how hard it can be to get people and institutions to collaborate. They had just heard her tell about how collaboration has been the key to advances in places like Portland, Ore., Chicago and even Detroit where the city government is struggling with debt and bankruptcy.
Bradley acknowledged that the idea of working together with neighboring communities, businesses and private organizations is always a challenge and might not be immediately rewarding.
She praised Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic for seeking regional solutions but added “voters are not going to re-elect him because of all the things he did for the nice people in Parma, right?”
In summarizing her book, The Metropolitan Revolution, she warned about looking to Washington for solutions.
“The message of the metropolitan revolution is quite simple: In the face of federal dysfunction and drift, it’s cities and metropolitan areas and the networks of people who lead them that are stepping up to address some of our most pressing challenges,” she said.
After the speech, she acknowledged the strength of those who resist collaboration.
“It’s hard work,” she said. “You have to have a pretty high tolerance for failures at the outset. That’s why you have to think about what you can succeed on, what you can get people to rally around and post some early successes.”
She cited stories about communities working together to emphasize exports or improve post-secondary education for high school graduates who won’t go to college. But she also hears about communities that consider their neighbors rivals.
Good news might sway the doubters, she said.
“I think one of the best things you can do is get testimonial from places where it’s worked,” she said, “so people from Denver go around the country a lot telling their story of collaboration and explaining why it was worth it to them to change their behavior.”
She warned about forcing collaboration through laws or other negative means.
“People are not genuinely collaborating if they are forced to do it,” she said. “It really has to be people collaborating around something they value with the understanding that they are driving toward an outcome, as opposed to avoiding some kind of penalty.”
Making modest promises and waiting for results also can help.
“Delay publicity until you have something to show for the efforts,” she said. “Make the big announcement when you’ve got a success and say ‘Hey, we’ve been working on this for six months and look what we’ve done.’ ”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.