For Better Or Worse: Will You Say YES To Collaboration?

Down the hill is the sea, the vast Atlantic Ocean of Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. However, its delightful invitation to a swim is ignored.
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Staying in the collaborative field
The meeting room is much too small for the almost 45 people. It is hot, the tiled floor does not help much, and the ordinary plastic chairs are not particularly comfortable. Little wind is coming through the open door that leads to the street. The occasional car driving past worsens the acoustics in the room.

Down the hill is the sea, the vast Atlantic Ocean of Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. However, its delightful invitation to a swim is ignored.

Despite the almost unbearable heat, the group concentrates on a written document that is projected onto the wall. Step by step we work through it - we're all hoping that this very diverse group will finally agree on one single document.

Completing this document forms an important milestone for an ambitious project. People have been meeting, in various constellations, for some time now in an attempt to reach an agreed on document. In addition, different versions of the document have already been under discussion for months and each version has been the cause of much conflicts and threats.

Much rests on this document as it could lay the foundation for continued collaboration between highly diverse international actors. And now, finally, we are about to bring it all together - if only we could all agree.

A moment of truth...
I stand in front of the group and I do not know which way this will go - will the group break apart, or will our common hope for change hold it all together?

At the same time, over the years my confidence has grown in the group's ability to re-establish common ground continuously - against all odds, and despite political, economic and cultural differences.

I have also come to believe that our shared commitment to sustainability - once it outgrew the usual scepticism and doubts - has a resilience which is able to survive all crises.

This resilience emerges from a deeper desire which lies latent in even the most critical person - a desire to contribute to the common good.

In this group, specifically, I also repeatedly encounter the subtle and silent presence of our collective responsibility. While resilience emerges from a need to contribute to the common good, collective responsibility seems to arise whenever a joint move into our future is at stake.

My confidence is rewarded. Despite all the vested interests, the lingering mistrust, the occasional doubt, we eventually reach an agreement. When my last call for proposals for change is met with nothing but silence I know...we have arrived.

Everybody knows. The relief erupts in spontaneous applause. And in this moment we honour each other; we have achieved the almost impossible.

And we proved that it is possible to tend the common.

Meaning flows when we collectively responding to sustainability
What started as a challenging initiative, (the Common Code for the Coffee Community (, today involves a wide range of people - from coffee growers, across the continents, to coffee roasters, from workers' unions to government officials. Together, each and every person involved has taken an important step towards more sustainable growing, trading and production of coffee on the world market.

Here is a growing community of people who had voluntarily decided to join a movement of sustainable business practices. The community consists of company representatives; leaders of coffee cooperatives; coffee farmers; researchers; civil society activists; presidents of coffee federations; lawyers, and sustainability managers. Under normal business circumstances these people would not usually communicate or even get to know each other. Yet, the initiative for more sustainable coffee production drew people together whose lives and worldviews differed in the extreme.

So how did this diverse group manage to work together?

One of the participants summarized: "There was an atmosphere of commitment that made it impossible to misbehave. Although you might feel the need to defend your position, you would still always stay in the collaborative field. You knew that we were all in this global learning process together, yet, nothing is fixed, we have to learn as we go".

Shining a light towards our shared future

What spark is needed to engender a commitment to a strenuous international learning process with an ambitious goal and unclear outcomes?

The Common Code for the Coffee Community initiative showed me that our initial intention is the spark which rekindles a latent desire. While our initial intention doesn't lay doubts to rest, it does create a resonance with newly emerging possibilities. And as our desire and resonance are nourished, inspired and revived, it keeps longing for more...growing towards more.

As the marriage between desire and resonance grows, the energy changes, people become more present, more open. They are more willing to cooperate while respecting one another's differences.

Have you had similar experiences in sustainability initiatives?
What was your initial intention and how did you manage to stay, or not stay, in the collaborative field?
What are you willing to say YES to?

We would love to hear your comments and learn from them.

You can follow Petra on Facebook and Twitter
as well as on her blog The Future of Leadership is Collective.

Petra is the author of several books, including "The Art of Leading Collectively".

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