Graham Sustainability Institute

Lessons in Collaboration

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Joan NassauerFrom the August, 2017 Water Center Newsletter

Building a bridge to stand on

Thinking of collaboration, I recall the satisfaction of working with colleagues in other disciplines. Even more, I recall productive collaborations in transdisciplinary work with expert practitioners and citizen stakeholders. No single thing made these interactions successful, but they all share this essential characteristic: participants were bridge-builders.

What is a bridge-builder? Someone who knows their territory very well, but wants to do the work to build something new that extends beyond known territory. As a metaphor, bridge-building implies that, from the bridge, you can see where you came from and even return there, but you work on a bridge constructed as a place for discovery.

A known territory is often a particular discipline, sometimes a particular organizational culture or habitual way of “doing business,” and sometimes a real place where stakeholders live. Leaving it doesn’t mean abandoning it. Rather it means, selecting what to bring with you when you walk on to the bridge and being ready to make return trips to get useful knowledge initially left behind or deliver discoveries from the bridge. Not everyone who has important knowledge to contribute wants to build a bridge or stand on it. Not all participants in a productive collaboration must be bridge-builders. It is the bridge builders’ job to draw knowledge from their home territories.

Importantly, standing on the bridge means speaking and listening with a vivid self-awareness that you have left home. Exchanges with others on the bridge thoughtfully position your own experience in relation to that of others and in relation to what all of you see differently from the bridge. What you can see from there will depend on the problem that brings your group together. The metaphor of standing on a bridge is meant to suggest a perspective for supporting discovery.

See Joan Nassauer's web profile