Complex problems facing cities like homelessness and climate change can only be solved by multiple organizations collaborating across boundaries, say Harvard Kennedy School faculty member Jorrit de Jong and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson.
Featuring Jorrit de Jong and Amy Edmondson
November 9, 2023
42 minutes and 21 seconds
Harvard Kennedy School faculty member Jorrit de Jong and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson say the big, intractable challenges facing city leaders today are too complex to be addressed by any one agency or government department. Complex challenges like the shortage of economic opportunity and affordable housing, homelessness, the effects of the climate crisis, and crime, can only be solved by multiple organizations working together. But that’s easier said than done. Bringing together government agencies, nonprofits, private businesses, academia, and the public into successful collaborations can be a huge challenge. Different people bring different agendas and goals. They don’t necessarily trust each other. Sometimes they can’t even agree on what the problem actually is, and they fail before even getting started. In a recent study, de Jong and Edmondson found that the most successful problem-solving collaborations have a number of things in common, including building a culture of safety and trust and being empowered to try, fail, and learn from mistakes. Sometimes, they say, the key can be just finding a place to start.
Jorrit de Jong’s policy recommendations:
Amy Edmondson’s policy recommendations:
Martínez Orbegozo, E. F., de Jong, J., Bowles, H. R., Edmondson, A., Nahhal, A., & Cox, L. (2022). Entry Points: Gaining Momentum in Early-Stage Cross-Boundary Collaborations. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 58(4), 595-645. https://doi.org/10.1177/00218863221118418
Jorrit de Jong is the Emma Bloomberg Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School. He is director of the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. His research and teaching focus on the challenges of making the public sector more effective, efficient, equitable, and responsive to social needs. A specialist in experiential learning, he has taught strategic management and public problem-solving in degree and executive education programs at HKS and around the world. He is also faculty co-chair of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a joint program of Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, the world’s most comprehensive effort to advance effective problem-solving and innovation through executive education, research, curriculum development, and fieldwork in cities.
He is also Academic Director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. In that capacity, he launched the Innovation Field Lab, an experiential learning, executive education, and action-oriented research project working with 15 cities in Massachusetts and New York to help them leverage data, community engagement and innovation to revitalize distressed and underinvested neighborhoods. He holds a PhD in Public Policy and Management from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, as well as a master's in philosophy and a master's in public administration from Leiden University. He has written extensively, including the books “The State of Access: Success and Failure of Democracies to Create Equal Opportunities;” “Agents of Change: Strategy and Tactics for Social Innovation;” and “Dealing with Dysfunction: Innovative Problem Solving in the Public Sector.”
Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises that contribute to the betterment of society. Edmondson has been recognized by the biannual Thinkers50 global ranking of management thinkers since 2011, and most recently was ranked No. 1 in 2021. She also received that organization’s Breakthrough Idea Award in 2019, and Talent Award in 2017.
She studies teaming, psychological safety, and organizational learning, and her articles have been published in numerous academic and management outlets. Her 2019 book, “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth,” has been translated into 15 languages. Her prior books: “Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate and compete in the knowledge economy;” “Teaming to Innovate;” and “Extreme Teaming” explore teamwork in dynamic organizational environments. Edmondson’s latest book, “Right Kind of Wrong,” builds on her prior work on psychological safety and teaming to provide a framework for thinking about, discussing, and practicing the science of failing well. Edmondson received her PhD in organizational behavior, AM in psychology, and AB in engineering and design from Harvard University.
Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of Communications and Public Affairs is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an AB in Political Science from UCLA and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University.
The co-producer of PolicyCast is Susan Hughes. Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg, Delane Meadows, and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.
This episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.
Preroll: (Ralph Ranalli): PolicyCast explores evidence-based policy solutions to the big problems we’re facing in our society and our world. This podcast is a production of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Jorrit de Jong (Intro): Let me give you one example, homelessness. You can think of that as one big problem, but if you break it down into smaller subsets of problems, you see that some people experiencing homelessness are dealing with mental illness and others are the victims of domestic violence, and yet others are experiencing substance abuse issues and others may have lost their house and are living below the poverty line. When you disaggregate a problem, you see a variety of different causes and consequences, but also it becomes very clear that, for some parts of the problem, you need the social services department, for another part of the problem, you need affordable housing, and for another part of the problem, you may need law enforcement or addiction help.
Amy Edmondson (Intro): The problems can be roughly referred to as wicked problems, which are the kinds of problems that have incomplete, contradictory, and shifting requirements. They do not have easy answers and they impact different groups in different ways. They're just by their very nature hard to solve, and so you need the different perspectives both for the innovation and the creative problem solving that that allows, but also for the acceptability of the solution. If people aren't participating, then they're unlikely to appreciate and effectively use or implement solutions that just came in from outside and, "Here, we think this is going to fix your problem for you."
Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Cities, like our world, are complex and interconnected places. So it’s hardly a surprise that our most intractable problems—lack of economic opportunity and affordable housing, homelessness, the effects of the climate crisis, crime—are that way too, complicated and seemingly hopelessly tangled, like that box of extensions cords you’re too afraid to bring up from the basement. Harvard Kennedy School faculty member Jorrit de Jong and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson say the big challenges facing city leaders today have another thing in common: they’re too tough to be addressed by any one agency or government department and can only be solved by multiple organizations working together. But that’s easier said than done. Bringing together city departments, nonprofits, private business, academia, and the public into successful collaborations can be a huge challenge. Different people bring different agendas and goals. They don’t necessarily trust each other. Sometimes they can’t even agree on what the problem actually is and they fail before even getting started. In a recent study, de Jong and Edmondson found that the most successful problem-solving collaborations have a number of things in common, including building a culture of safety and trust and being willing to try, fail, and learn from mistakes. Sometimes it's even just finding a place to start. Jorrit de Jong is the director of the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University and academic director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, whose books and writings on teamwork in successful organizations have been translated into 15 languages. They’re here with me today.
Ralph Ranalli: Amy, Jorrit, welcome to PolicyCast.
Jorrit de Jong: Thanks for having us.
Amy Edmondson: Great to be here.
Ralph Ranalli: We're talking today about cross-boundary collaboration, which I think is a term that a lot of people aren’t familiar with. Well maybe they're more familiar with the general concept, but can we start with a little bit about its origins in the context of solving intractable problems in cities and why it's important? Jorrit do you want to start us off?
Jorrit de Jong: Sure. Well, the main thing about cross-boundary collaboration is that it is something that is necessary because the problems that we face in society today are multifaceted, they're complex, they're volatile and no single organization, unfortunately, is able to tackle them. When we talk about homelessness or climate change or poverty or crime, we need multiple organizations to work together to come up with a good diagnosis of what the problem is and then to generate ideas for action and then to implement those ideas.
Ralph Ranalli: Amy?
Amy Edmondson: Let me just even say something more basic, which is what's a boundary? I mean, a boundary is a line between groups. The kinds of groups that Jorrit and I studied include expertise groups, different sectors, different employers, different organizations, even different levels on a hierarchy. Having people come across those boundaries to do something together is what we studied.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. The stakeholders are usually government, nonprofits and NGOs, the business community, and academia. Is there anything else on that list?
Amy Edmondson: Well, I think, occasionally, citizens, community.
Ralph Ranalli: Amy, you've written four books on the subject of teamwork including one where you said: "The work done in the modern organization is less and less about looking inward and creating strong teams inside a company and more about teaming across boundaries that are often in flux. What’s causing that shift to companies and organizations needing to look outwards?
Amy Edmondson: Organizations are more and more dependent on the cooperation of and the contributions of people from other organizations. That can be as simple as suppliers and customer organizations where the degree to which you can collaborate effectively across those boundaries matters for the effective delivery of services and goods in supply chains of all kinds. That's just one ordinary way of doing business that involves that. Beyond that, there's a real interest for companies and government organizations and others to be working together to solve some of the more thorny problems that society faces. These are the kinds of problems that cannot be solved by one organization alone or even one sector working alone, so there's just more need for that kind of reaching out, reaching across, and collaborating.
Ralph Ranalli: Jorrit, you're a leading scholar on collective governance to address multi-stakeholder problems. What are some examples of the problems that either can only be solved by or addressed or best addressed with cross-boundary collaboration?
Jorrit de Jong: Yeah. I would say that there's almost no significant problem facing cities today that can be solved by a single organization. Local government obviously offers a variety of basic services and is responsible for law enforcement in a variety of different areas, but most of the problems— whether it's crime or economic development or homelessness—require multiple types of expertise, multiple skill sets, resources that cannot be offered by one organization alone and, therefore, if you really want to make progress on these issues, you can't go it alone.
It makes sense that we have silos within government agencies. Division of labor is, of course, a very basic principle of organizational design. You can't do everything all at once, and therefore we've created departments, a department for buildings, a department for parks and recreation, a department of police, fire department and so forth, human services, but those departments are focused on the types of activities, types of services that they're responsible for. What we increasingly find is that the way problems manifest themselves in the real world requires interventions, actions and resources from multiple departments. Even within governments, you need cross-boundary collaboration where the boundaries are the departmental boundaries.
Let me give you one example, homelessness. You can think of that as one big problem, but if you break it down into smaller subsets of problems, you see that some people experiencing homelessness are dealing with mental illness and others are the victims of domestic violence, and yet others are experiencing substance abuse issues and others may have lost their house and are living below the poverty line. When you disaggregate a problem, you see a variety of different causes and consequences, but also it becomes very clear that, for some parts of the problem, you need the social services department, for another part of the problem, you need affordable housing, and for another part of the problem, you may need law enforcement or addiction help.
The way problems manifest themselves in cities, it's very varied. It varies from city to city. It varies from time to time. And it definitely depends on how you look at it. The way you look at it can inform the way you try to solve it. What we're claiming in this study is that the nature of these problems requires a more comprehensive, a broader, more holistic look and, therefore, it requires multiple organizations to look at it together and then to solve it together.
Amy Edmondson: Right, and I'll just double down on that idea, the nature of the problems. I mean, the nature of the problems can be roughly referred to as wicked problems, which are the kinds of problems that have incomplete, contradictory, and shifting requirements. They do not have easy answers and they impact different groups in different ways. They're just by their very nature hard to solve, and so you need the different perspectives both for the innovation and the creative problem solving that that allows, but also for the acceptability of the solution. If people aren't participating, then they're unlikely to appreciate and effectively use or implement solutions that just came in from outside and, "Here, we think this is going to fix your problem for you."
Ralph Ranalli: Right. I think we all have this lovely ideal of what collaboration looks like, right? But one of the things that struck me when I was reading your study is how difficult it is and how significant the barriers are that need to be broken down. On the one hand, we have a nice picture in your mind of people holding hands and singing kumbaya and everyone bringing their own expertise to bear on a problem in this lovely holistic way, but on the other you identified the process of just getting started as something that's difficult to the point where you used the term "disorientation" to talk about early phase of trying different groups together. Can you talk a bit about that notion of disorientation and why it's so difficult to get traction with cross-boundary collaborations?
Jorrit de Jong: Absolutely. You may know the expression, "If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." If you are the Department of, let's say, Parks and Recreation, you look at a problem from that perspective and you think, "Oh, the problem to solve is to get this park clean and safe, and you may look at the people experiencing homelessness in that park as people that need to be removed, but if you are from the Department of Social Services, you look at the people in the park and you think, "Hey, we need to help these individuals," get them into housing, stabilize their condition and so forth, and you don't care as much about the park. Both are very legitimate perspectives, but very often—and this is what we found in a number of different studies that we conducted over the past 10 years—is that there are, in almost every cross-boundary collaboration phases, three major barriers.
The very first one is how to define the problem. How do we define the problem in a way that generates sufficient consensus, not full consensus, but sufficient consensus to actually start working on it, because, if you don't see yourself in that problem definition, you're like, "What am I doing here?" It needs to be sufficiently inclusive to get the right parties on board and to get started. The second barrier is actually team building. Amy is, of course, an expert on this. It requires a certain kind of psychological safety—and maybe Amy you can say a little bit more about that—to actually engage in work where you don't know the problem yet and where you don't know the solution yet and where you don't maybe trust each other or understand each other enough yet to work together.
The final barrier that we always find is multiple accountability challenges. You're committed to solving the problem and to working together, yet you're also on the payroll of your organization and, at the end of the day, your boss or your constituents will hold you accountable for the siloed organizational task and not the work that you did with other parties, and so there's this natural tension that occurs.
Amy Edmondson: Yes. I mean, I'll build on that by saying, you mentioned psychological safety, and that's something that research, including my own, has shown is a really important factor in teamwork in general. And it's because it's not easy to be candid, it's not easy to speak up with a wild idea that people might laugh at, and it's not easy to ask for help if you don't understand something. Nobody likes to admit their ignorance or advertise their incompetence. I use those terms almost tongue in cheek, but we can naturally think, "Oh, someone will think I'm an idiot because I don't know something." It's much easier to hold back, wait and see. And so there's that challenge of speaking up.
Roughly speaking, there's psychological, I mean, there's many psychological barriers, and you alluded to several, but just, "I don't maybe trust you because you come from a different department or a different background. I don't feel safe speaking up, honestly, candidly." There are so many things that get in the way of the innovation we're talking about, so it's much, much easier to fail than to succeed in this domain, and then layered on top of that are what I would call technological or logistical hurdles related to the jargon, different expertise areas, and different sectors have different jargon. The alphabet soup is a really big deal in the public sector and private sector, and so you can have people talking right by each other and really just struggling to have the effortless collaboration that you envision in this kumbaya moment that you recalled. You can't underestimate both the logistical, technological challenges and the psychological, sociological challenges.
Ralph Ranalli: Sure. If you just think about the groups that you're talking about who are trying to collaborate with each other. One example is you've got nonprofits who are probably distrustful of for-profits. A lot of the time, that's a common nonprofit worldview. Then you've got for-profit businesses who are often distrustful of government, and …
Amy Edmondson: ... and vice versa.
Ralph Ranalli: Exactly, and vice versa. You talked about in the study about finding an entry point. Can you talk about that, Amy, maybe starting out with what is an entry point and how does one help you break through those initial difficulties and get a collaborative process moving?
Amy Edmondson: Yeah. I guess what I will have to admit is that this is more descriptive, and I think it makes good sense theoretically and practically, but I'll tell you what we found. What we found was, as I alluded to earlier, that most, all the teams struggle, but the ones that end up making traction in their wicked problems and their challenging problems are the ones, now this will sound almost tautological, but they're the ones who found an entry point. There's a point at which, if you find an entry point, you get enough momentum to keep going through the hard work of teaming up across boundaries and making progress in new territory, and it's easy not to find one.
What is an entry point? It took different forms in different projects, but we created this acronym, M-A-A-P. It means they found some way to get started that was meaningful. People could agree that this was connected to our broader goal even though it isn't a solution to our broader goal. It was meaningful. It was acceptable, meaning, different constituents would find it an okay thing to be working on. It was actionable, right? Again, not a magic wand or big solution to everything, but it was something you could go try, and it was provisional. I mean, it was almost deliberately seen by all as a starting point that, as we learn more together, we will get more clear, we will get better at making progress.
Ralph Ranalli: At this point, I'd really like to if we can get into some concrete examples. In your study, you used the example of Manchester, New Hampshire. There were 10 other groups that were a big part of your study. Can you talk about how the group in Manchester, New Hampshire, found its entry point and what problem they were tackling?
Jorrit de Jong: Absolutely. It's a great story, and I have to say it's not a story that is finished. It's a work in progress. I think it's fair to say that most of these problems are not solved. You can make progress. You can mitigate the problem, but there's only one way, as Amy suggested, to get started, which is to get started, but then you have to figure out and agree with this whole group, "Where do we start and how do we start?" There's often a theme that we see around the ideal is the enemy of good, right? We think we know enough about the problem to say that any tiny step in the right direction is not sufficient, because it will not solve the problem or it will not make progress fast enough, but what we've found in this study is that, if you start and focus on something small but meaningful, and if you make sure that you learn from that first step, you will see the next step and the next step and the next step.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, they were facing multiple crises, homelessness on one the hand and opioid abuse on the other. There was overlap, but the city did not have data on how exactly these problems were intertwined, who was experiencing what problem or what condition and how to intervene as a city. Now, the parties in Manchester included social service providers, caregiving organizations, the police, fire departments, the Department of Public Works, but also the business community, especially downtown where business owners were complaining about people sleeping on the streets and panhandling.
The mayor, Joyce Craig, really was worried about the situation and did not have necessarily enough resources for affordable housing or for the help, but she did know that just banning panhandling wasn't going to solve the problem. It's like fighting a symptom and not addressing the underlying problems. However, the business community was primarily interested in addressing that part of the problem because it mattered most to them and to their customers. What they agreed to do is to say, "Okay, we are going to think of panhandling as an entry point, but under one condition, that if we discourage panhandling, then we will make sure that the individuals that are being removed from the downtown area will be directed to treatment, to shelter, to social workers and so forth, and we will learn from what they're experiencing, what their needs are, and then we will use that to generate new funding and additional services so that we can make progress on the larger issue and the underlying problems."
Even though it looks like fighting a symptom to some and solving a problem to others, it allowed the group to start to work together, to look at the problem together, to learn from what works and what doesn't work together. And because they formed a coalition as such, they had a much better case to make to the state and to other funders. A few years later, they changed the structure in their governments. They have much more cross-silo collaboration in their government because they did find out that about 50% of the people who were homeless also were struggling with addiction problems. They changed their approach to helping the individuals, but they also helped create better conditions in downtown at the same time.
Now, has it been solved? Absolutely not, but is the city in a better place to tackle the problem? Absolutely, and that is basically what we're seeing in all of those teams that are making progress. How they're getting traction is they start somewhere that is imperfect, but they learn, and as they learn they get to a better place.
Amy Edmondson: One thing to just underline strongly here is that we've talked about, in a sense, to get started, you have to get started. And that might sound at first glance like a willpower problem where we just have to take the first step. I don't want to underplay how creative the first step was.
This isn't a matter of: "It's obvious what the first step is. Let's just do it." This is truly a matter of: "We don't have a clue what the first step is because it's a wicked problem with multi-dimensional, multifaceted challenges." It's actually a team creative project to figure out an entry point, something that we can do that's meaningfully connected to our broader, ambitious goal that again is acceptable and something fundamentally we can learn from together.
Jorrit de Jong: One other example that I really love, and not just because it's from my home country, the Netherlands, is the problem that they had in the City of Breda with illegal grow houses. They were growing marijuana.
The idea was, or the suspicion was, that organized crime was exploiting or coercing low-income residents to use their attics and basements for this illegal activity. The police and the prosecutor's office had been trying the traditional law enforcement approach, but the community wouldn't want to work with them because they were afraid or didn't trust law enforcement.
Then they started working within a utility company that had been experiencing electricity theft because grow houses take a lot of electricity. They also worked with the City of Breda, which was interested in community engagement, and they worked with a tax office who was interested in money laundering related to organized crime. They came up with a very different approach, and they found their entry points were focused on fire safety, because everybody cares about fire safety because your family needs to be safe, and so-
Amy Edmondson: Neighbor could be-
Jorrit de Jong: Your neighbors could be having a grow house and create that risk for you because they're using the electricity and the wiring catches fire because of the overuse, the overload. They started knocking on doors and said , "Hey, here's what you need to know about fire safety. If you smell this smell," and they had a sample with them, "then you might be at risk, and so you need to report that." That was a way to build trust with the community. Well, did it solve organized crime? Did it end illegal grow houses? No, but at least they found a way, literally, into the houses, an entry point, but also into the problem and, from there, they learned and adjusted their approach. I think that's another example of not giving up on the goal, the ultimate goal, but just structuring the process of learning.
Ralph Ranalli: It's wonderful when these things succeed, but they don't all succeed. What have you found about when they fail, why they fail?
Amy Edmondson: In a way, I mean, this is a bit tautological, but they fail because they fail to overcome the very real hurdles. These challenges are both creative challenges, they're political, they're effortful. There's lots and lots of pushback and barriers. They're overwhelming, so it's almost the assumed outcome that they will struggle anyway.
Ralph Ranalli: You talk in the study about inherent paradoxes. Can you expound on that a little bit?
Jorrit de Jong: Sure. There's a chicken-and-egg issue which is interesting to think about. For busy people and organizations with limited resources to commit to a collaboration, they need to know what's in it for them or why it would be important for them to participate. But you don't know that until you actually start looking at the problem together.
For example, the growing house case did not include the fire department at first. It did include the tax office. Now, when you would have asked the fire department, "Hey, do you want to go chase organized crime in this neighborhood?" They're like, "Why would we do that?" They're like, "We got fires to put out. Organized crime is not in our job description," but because they learned more about the problem, and one part of it was the fire risk, then it became more relevant for the fire to be included.
Here's the other thing. The tax office was less relevant, and you can imagine this poor tax inspector who would go to you about like, "What have you been doing lately, John?" and then, "Well, I've been finding illegal grow houses and detecting fire risk." Well, that's not your job description either, so you can see that, because all these problems were multifaceted, that a case has to be made for involvement and inclusion and participation. The inherent paradox there is that you need to have a broader group to work and look at the problem, but in order to get that group to look at the problem, you need to have a sufficient idea of what you're doing. That cannot be resolved one way or the other, other than just getting started and trying something out.
Amy Edmondson: Yeah, and people who are willing to just be operating slightly outside their normal job description and willing to be creative and not worry so much about: "Is this my boss' number one priority right now?" because they glimpse an opportunity to make a real difference in something that speaks to them and matters to the community.
Ralph Ranalli: Right, and you go back to the trust issue, too. You need to trust enough to have collaboration, but you also build trust through collaboration, so we're back to chickens and eggs.
Amy Edmondson: It's chickens and eggs for sure. I'm not sure it's paradoxes. To me, the word paradox is overused. I shouldn't maybe say that, but it technically means two things that can't both be true at the same time, versus I think what we're talking about is a little bit more interesting and subtle, which is it's hard to get started and it's hard to know which comes first, the chicken or the egg.
Ralph Ranalli: I love that you quoted the philosopher John Dewey and his saying that: “A problem well put is a problem half solved.” But that's not necessarily easy either. What happens when you can't even agree on the problem? I live in a suburb of Boston and our local political dividing line basically breaks down along the issue of affordable housing. One group identifies the lack of affordable housing as the problem, where the other basically views the impulse to build more affordable housing as the problem. What happens when you can’t agree on whether a problem actually exists?
Amy Edmondson: In a way, it's everything. It's the frame. With that frame, if you get stuck and stay in that frame, you will get nowhere. That is a guarantee because neither side is going to willingly change their view of the problem. What's needed is something that both sides care about, the future, the children and the future, or things along those lines, access to our schools, what have you.
I won't try to solve that particular problem in your particular area, but the only way to break out and go forward is by finding an overarching shared goal or value that we both care about and then we get to start to take baby, creative steps toward what might this look like to help us resolve some of that very real tension.
Jorrit de Jong: I would also say that a lot of this work was informed by Bloomberg Harvard City leadership program that Amy and I both teach in. It's a program for mayors and their senior teams. Mayors are often the ones nominating a problem for action. They run on a campaign platform, and they want to do something about inclusive growth or climate resilience or crime, and then, when they create a task force or try to build a coalition around that problem, it is important for them to know that, yes, they need to say, "This is the problem that I care about."
But they also, as authorizers of this work, need to keep an open mind and be flexible because, if they're not flexible, the group will be reluctant to zoom in on one particular entry point that doesn't immediately make sense. Knowing what the nature is of this work—going back to Amy's notion earlier about the wicked problem—acknowledging and being explicit that you expect the group to learn rather than to deliver on the specific thing you're asking them to do. What we've seen is that the role of authorizers is often understudied. One of the things that we see in the groups is those groups that felt like they had agency—they had the license to innovate and the permission to learn and develop as they went along—those groups were more successful in making progress. In our executive education program for mayors, both Amy and I spent a lot of time like, "How can leaders create the conditions for these diverse teams to do their work and to make meaningful progress?"
Ralph Ranalli: I was interested in the personal aspect of when these collaborations start achieving success. What have you seen in terms of transformations in people's attitudes and outlooks when all of a sudden things start clicking and positive things start happening? What have you seen in terms of changes in the participants once this cross-boundary collaboration starts working?
Amy Edmondson: I'll just say more abstractly, and then maybe Jorrit can give more concrete observations, but more abstractly, they start to feel like a "we" rather than, "I'm here. I'm from tax," or, "I'm from fire," or, "I'm from city hall.” They start to be part of the homelessness task force. They start to feel like each other as a mighty resource and that they start to care about each other, they start to care about their work together.
Jorrit de Jong: Yeah. A colleague of ours, Ronnie Heifetz, uses the metaphor of a vegetable soup where you can throw different types of vegetables in a pan and add cold water, and then these vegetables will remain the same thing and there's no blending. You can also turn up the heat and cook them to pieces, and it's like one ratatouille, but the idea is to raise the temperature enough so that the individual vegetables still keep their taste and their shape, but they also start to form like a vegetable soup. Very often, we think of these processes of cross-boundary collaboration as pressure cookers. Without heat, there will be no dinner, but with too much heat, there will also be no dinner or it won't taste very well. Getting the temperature right, raising the pressure, creating a holding environment if you like around a group, which is what we do in our Executive Education programs, we bring people together and support them as they engage with the work and with each other and regulate the temperature so that they get to a level of productivity and trust that is required to make progress.
Ralph Ranalli: You also teach this in the Executive Education program. Why is it important to connect with that audience?
Amy Edmondson: I mean, I think, in professional schools, certainly in the Kennedy School and the Business School at Harvard, our goal is knowledge for action. Our research is always in the back of our minds. Sometimes, in the very front of our minds is how would this work? What can we learn about how to help people in tough jobs, tough leadership roles? How can we help them do a better job in achieving their results?
One of the ways that we both share, but also develop our insights is in the executive classroom. We are teaching there, but we are also learning from them, from their feedback, from their examples, from their stories. We use the case method quite deliberately so that we have some principles that we're trying to convey and make them memorable and sticky through the stories, but we also want to hear their stories and how they've seen this work in practice, so that allows us to learn, that allows them to learn.
Jorrit de Jong: Yeah, I would say I fully agree with that. A lot of the research questions come from practice and come from our interactions with mayors and their senior leaders and others. The work that we do at Harvard is only good if it's both rigorous and relevant. If it's only rigorous and not relevant, we wouldn't want to do it because why?
Amy Edmondson: If it's only relevant and not rigorous, then we don't feel so good either.
Jorrit de Jong: Exactly, because you don't want to be sharing just ideas that are not rooted in research, right? That's why Amy and I and the whole group of authors, when we learned early on that mayors were struggling with cross-boundary collaboration and forming coalitions and task forces, we said like, "That's a really interesting research question." Amy had done research for many years on teaming and increasingly on wicked problem solving. I had been doing a lot of work on collaborative governance, but mostly at national or even international levels. We felt like, if we could combine our expertise and bring in some other colleagues, Hannah Riley Bowles, Eva Flavia Martinez Orbegozo, Jan Rivkin, and Mark Moore, then we could actually fill that gap.
The studies that we've recently published are the first fruits of that labor, and we immediately bring it back to the classroom. When we teach now, we refer to these studies and we say, "Well, we don't have the definitive answer to the question how to do this, but we have some ideas that may help you guide the work as you go along."
Amy Edmondson: We see if it resonates. Does it resonate?
Ralph Ranalli: We've been talking about using this approach at the city level, but a lot of the problems that cities are facing are national and international in scope: climate readiness, the green energy transition, migration. Does the cross-boundary collaboration approach scale up?
Jorrit de Jong: Well, we haven't done that research yet, but I think what we are seeing in the cross-sector collaborations in cities, those themes are not necessarily only happening in cities. It's much more about different professions, disciplines, organizational realities trying to work together than that it is about city-specific issues. Obviously, at the national level and at the international level, you have many more wicked problems, and some are the same, climate change, poverty, drugs, crime. Anywhere where people try to make progress on wicked problems, you will see the same types of mechanisms, barriers and patterns. Therefore, our hypothesis is that this applies to other contexts as well, but we haven't done that research yet.
Amy Edmondson: We haven't done that research, but I think, if you look to any effective body that has trudged, made a dent in something, maybe child labor or human trafficking at a more global scale versus a local city scale, you will always find the requirement of different areas of expertise more often than not coming from multiple organizations, the NGOs, governments, business, large business players. Obviously, not all of these efforts are successful, but if they're serious, they will nearly always involve cross-boundary collaboration.
Ralph Ranalli: We've reached the point in the podcast where we put the policy in PolicyCast, which is where I'm going to ask you for some specific recommendations, and in this case I think policy recommendations. Do you have any policies that would encourage or make it easier to create successful cross-boundary collaborations or to help them along the road to success? What policies could turbocharge this process, which has shown that it can make a dent in big and intractable problems?
Amy Edmondson: This is where I'm not a policy person, so I could just have a free ride here, but I will say one thing. I mean, one policy thing that occurs to me is making funding available. I think, oftentimes, funding is only available for things that are really clear cut and proven and have been done before. Making seed funding available for this kind of exploratory work is something that I think could be a policy issue.
Jorrit de Jong: I don't think it is a policy question. I think it's a leadership question and a management question. What is helpful for creating and sustaining cross-boundary collaboration is for authorizers to be supportive of the process of, as Amy calls it, execution as learning, so try something out, come back and hold teams accountable for learning.
What I always tell authorizers is that, if you say, "Well, have you fixed the problem?" then everybody is going to be very fixed on delivering exactly what they think the authorizer expects. And that may not be the best thing for solving the problem. What you have to do as an authorizer is to say, "Well, I expect you to do something" and whether it works or not …
Amy Edmondson: … learn from it …
Jorrit de Jong: ... it doesn't matter, but you have to come back and tell me, "This is what I've done. This is what worked. This is what didn't work. This is what I've learned or what we have learned, and this is the next step that we're thinking of taking, and we want authorization for that next iteration."
I think that is a very different way of providing guidance and support and sponsorship than many authorizers are used to. I would say, if that's something, if you're a mayor or if you're a secretary, the national government or if you're a CEO even, then that's the difference in how you create the conditions for this type of work to be successful.
Ralph Ranalli: Great. Well, I would just like to thank you both. This was a really interesting conversation that I enjoyed very much. Thanks for your time.
Amy Edmondson: Thanks for having us.
Ralph Ranalli (Outro): Thanks for listening. Please join us for our next episode, when Harvard Kennedy School Professor David Deming and Harvard University Economics Professor Raj Chetty will discuss their research on how legacy preference affects college admissions.
And please subscribe to PolicyCast on your favorite podcasting app so you don’t miss any of our great upcoming episodes. If you have a comment or a suggestion for the team here at PolicyCast, please drop us an email at PolicyCast@hks.harvard.edu—we’d love to hear from you. And until next time, remember to speak bravely, and listen generously.