Collaboration: The Art of Constructive Disagreement

This article has been submitted as part of our series of blogs on natural capital by Richard Spencer, Head of Sustainability, ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales).

When I set up the Finance Innovation Lab with colleagues here at the Institute of Chartered Accounts, and in partnership with WWF-UK, we were mindful of the fact that we would not be successful by attempting to solve the feasibly unsolvable - namely the financial crisis - through approaching the problem with an "answer" or single approach already in mind. In my years of experience in the world of investment banking and consulting, it was entrenched that unless you had the answer straight away, you had failed. In fact, what this led to, was a situation where you ended up desperately trying to persuade your clients they were asking the question that fitted your answers. It is the same propensity that drives advocacy research, where the author simply looks for the evidence to support the predetermined cause.

At the Lab we felt that it was necessary to approach the many issues in the financial system with humility, and to go in with an open mind. We recognised that we didn't even know what the right questions were, never mind the right answers. Without getting the questions right, you can't get the answers that you need to affect change.

We felt that it was important to work collectively and co-creatively, and so we threw out the traditional notion of hierarchy, and embraced the ethos that great ideas come from all rungs on the ladder. We particularly embraced the unexpected, unconventional and dissonant voices; those usually inaudible over the cries of 'the expert' who has traditionally defined outside and divergent views as mostly worthless. And yes, of course we didn't get it perfect first time, it took many attempts, and there were many wobbles before we found our way. Ultimately though, this willingness to try different ideas and approaches is what has made the Lab so successful.

At the heart of all this is a very simple concept: It is rare that a single person, team or organisation has all of the answers. It is only by collaborating, weighing up, combining and developing on the ideas of others, that true success can be achieved. It is an understanding of this that led Sir Isaac Newton to famously write that "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." He recognised that for all of his brilliance, he would not have achieved what he did, without the ideas and knowledge of others upon which to build.

When one reviews the landscape of sustainability, despite the fact we are focused on a common goal, we are remarkably fragmented. Almost no one seems to really believe that businesses can actually put aside their competitive edge to collaborate. This is true even though many recognise that what the sustainability movement desperately needs - in fact the only way that it can be successful - is if it transforms entrenched systems on never before seen scales.

As an example, achieving the vision of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development by 2030, is going to be a huge challenge, and a test of the collaboration that we as a global community are capable of. We can no longer continue as we have done, but only just slightly better; that is describing operational efficiency at best. We have to be strategic. We have to fundamentally change the way we do things in order to achieve a world of social justice, wealth and prosperity, while being mindful that there are limits to what nature can provide. This has to happen at the personal, organisational and economic level, and it will only work if we act together; if we collaborate.

This will be most challenging at the national level. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has noted on many occasions that the late 20th century and early 21st has seen power, (the ability to act), globalise into corporate power and the influence of an elite few. However, he argues that politics, (the ability to decide), has remained tightly held by the nation state; this is an illusion. How much sovereignty did Greece really retain after its sovereign debt crisis?

The inability to achieve what should have been achieved at COP21 in Paris, shows that nation states are not coming together in common, but continue to fight for their own turf. I believe collaboration at the nation-state level will inevitably centre on the pooling of sovereignty.

But there are positive stories that give hope. This year the Natural Capital Coalition will launch its Natural Capital Protocol, a framework to enable businesses to embed the importance of nature at the heart of all they do. I am certain that the key ingredient in its success was collaboration. Over forty organisations from across the economy came together, without the hand of government, to agree under pre-competitive contracts to produce a public good - the Protocol. Let's not be in any doubt this, it is a stunning achievement. In my view the invisible asset, the act of collaboration, has allowed for this success.

While developing the Protocol, the challenge of many acting as one has been difficult at times, but ultimately it has worked superbly. The whole point is that collaborations should not be easy. If you all just agree, then what was the point? Equally if you are purely hostile and stubborn in your beliefs, you will likewise struggle to achieve anything significant. Both are stagnant pools. But constructive disagreement is dynamic and leads to the evolution of thought and ideas: when you come with all your passion, knowledge, skill and experience, but have the courage to relax your beliefs, to accept that you might be wrong, to embrace other perspectives, to listen to contrasting view points and to navigate as a cohesive unit towards the best possible outcome, that's collaboration.


Disclaimer: Articles in this series are submitted by people who work in organizations who are part of the Natural Capital Coalition, or people who are involved in the natural capital space, the views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Mark Gough, the secretariat or other Coalition organizations.