I had the pleasure of sitting and talking a few weeks ago with Bill Milliken. And, among the countless gems that began to flow when he started getting into the rhythm of the conversation, he dropped this:
“If I am on an operating table, I don’t want collaborators. I want an integrated system!”
With his sharp wit and wily twinkle in his eyes, Milliken is relentless in pushing us to “get it right” in our collective work for and with young people. This is what he has done and advocated for decades (it’s what makes him Bill Milliken!).
His charm aside, I thought this quote was worth exploring a little further.
So, I started thinking about the difference between collaboration and an integrated system. And, while there are certainly many specific differences to consider, I believe that, at its core, the difference is that of shared strategy (not to be confused merely with a shared strategic plan, strategic vision, strategic alignment, or any other narrow bastardizations of the concept of strategy).
As collaborators, we typically bring 1 and 1 together and celebrate how we “strategically” made 2. To use another analogy, in collaboration, I have my puzzle piece and you have yours and we navigate around the edges a bit to see if we can “strategically” fit them together.
But, collaboration is too often just that – around the edges – and generally happens downstream of our truly strategic organizational and institutional decisions. In other words, the critical decisions (who we serve, how, when, where, etc.) are already made by the time the collaboration tries to fit them together. Collaboration becomes a reactionary tactic attempting to overcome the lack of an actual integrated system!
In an integrated system, we co-create in an ongoing manner our collective strategy, which guides and determines organizational and institutional decisions, key roles, responsibilities, and tactics. I work in this area or on this issue because it complements (not simply adds to) what you do and how you do it toward our common objective (also an element of strategy). An integrated system, therefore, requires constant communication, reflection, and learning so that together our 1 + 1 achieves the proverbial 3.
Cynically, then, an integrated system comes at a cost: our work must actually be about our work, not just our organization or institution. Our work must be about the young person, for example, not whether or not I work in a school setting or an after-school setting.
Let’s be honest, in most of our communities, the “systems of support” (or lack thereof) we have created for young people have been created because they work well for us as adults and the organizations we lead. Even in some of the best cases, our efforts represent an attempt to add things up for young people, but never really ask us to change what we are doing to make the system more complete. We generate plans of systems but claim expertise or blame funding for why someone else needs to change or do more, and not us.
We rarely, if ever, achieve an integrated system at the level of shared strategy. We rarely, if ever, achieve the sort of integrated system that would actually work for our young people.
Unfortunately, no amount of collaboration can overcome this reality. And, even more unfortunately, collaboration can obscure the weaknesses within the system by averaging them out. This, in turn, makes future efforts at a more integrated and strategic approach that much more complicated because we appear to be better than we actually are. It also makes it more difficult to identify and address where we are falling short.
If I am on the operating table, I do hope my surgeon is part of an integrated system with the nurses and the doctor who diagnosed me. And, once there, I certainly hope the stellar work of my surgeon doesn’t obscure or average out the marginal work of my anesthesiologist!
So, Bill, thanks for the analogy, the push to work smarter, and for ensuring the next time I have surgery that I will be completely scared-to-death!