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Back of the Envelope Advice

Short on time? Here are some quick back-of-the-envelope tips to help you along until you have more time another day to explore the details of this site.

1. Take the first step.

For a ball to get rolling, someone has to push it. Collaboration is people working together and it only starts when someone takes the first step; when someone extends a hand to another. Sometimes it’s a simple phone call that gets the collaboration ball rolling. Sometimes it’s a chance meeting on Main Street when one person says to another “perhaps we could do things differently here; let’s give it a try.” Maybe it’s you who takes the first step; maybe it’s someone else at your encouragement; maybe it’s you responding to the initiative of someone else who has extended their hand. Remember, if no one takes that first step, nothing is likely to happen.

2. Take some field trips.

There’s nothing like walking-the-ground to help highlight a problem or a need or an issue. There’s nothing like an informal field trip to enable people to get to know one another as individuals rather than strangers or adversaries; to move beyond their stereotypes of one another as “an environmentalist,” “a logger,” or “a Forest Service ranger,” and in so doing to develop more constructive working relationships. Whenever possible, keep your effort tangible and interactive in order to help people see a problem or issue in new ways and feel compelled to do something about it.

3. Develop a vision, mission, or common objective statement.

People who work well together and make consistent progress always have a goal in mind. They do not meet for the sake of meeting; they meet to accomplish something. Effective collaborative groups usually spend time at the outset discussing their common objectives and developing a written statement that visually captures their shared purpose. Whether it is called a “vision statement,” “mission statement” or something entirely different, it represents what the group as a whole is working towards. It puts everyone on the same page, and provides a future point that they all aspire to achieve.

Click here for some examples of vision or mission statements adopted by different collaborative groups. You will quickly note that these statements look surprisingly similar, even though they have been crafted by different people, working on different issues, in different areas of the country. Keep in mind as you review these statements that a considerable portion of their value comes from the process of developing it; from the discussion and understanding that was fostered among participants as the mission statement took form.

4. Craft a meaningful Memorandum of Understanding.

Memoranda of Understanding have been around for a long time and we all know that many of them are signed with great hoopla and then sit gathering dust on a shelf. Believe it or not, it is possible to develop an MOU that can provide real guidance and foster meaningful interaction between federal agencies. While most MOUs sit in a drawer, Elkhorn District Ranger George Weldon's was always readily accessible in his back pocket. Why? Because it wasn't a symbolic gesture, it was a working document.
MOUs like District Ranger Weldon's are developed by individuals who ask questions like:

  • What is our overriding objective in working together? What do we hope to accomplish?
  • In what specific ways will we work together in pursuit of these objectives and accomplishments?
  • What are the criteria we will use individually and collectively when we make decisions affecting issues or areas of shared concern?
  • What are the respective responsibilities of the parties to the MOU?

The answers to questions like these should be explicitly answered in the wording of the MOU. In so doing, the document becomes a useful tool, providing the guidance needed to ensure that the partnership potential is realized in action, not just on paper.

5. Have measurable goals

Collaboration takes time and effort. It is only worth doing if it makes a difference to the problems or issues that prompted it. Measurable goals can help ensure progress. Once you figure out what you hope to accomplish as a group, think about the specific steps to getting there. What are the specific resource indicators that you will need to keep your eye on in order to assess whether or not you are making progress towards your goals? Measurable goals not only keep a group focused, they are usually motivating to the group effort.

6. Designate a coordinator or point person

Depending on the scale and scope of your project, it is often helpful to have someone who is coordinating the effort. This formal or informal “coordinator” is the person who can be contacted if someone has a question or need; they make sure that communication is maintained between the partner agencies and organizations; they keep track of projects and accomplishments; they are the one person who keeps tabs on all aspects of the collaborative effort. If this coordinating function is left to chance, tasks often fall through the cracks and important bridges can begin crumbling.

7. Get your boots muddy working on something tangible.

Action is motivating. Start with problems or issues that are more easily solved and that involve hands-on projects. A sense of accomplishment instills hope and encourages continued collaboration; it creates a sense among those involved that, in fact, they truly can make a difference. If the collaboration is all about talking in a room, chances are good that people will slowly fade away from it.

This site was developed by the Ecosystem Management Initiative through a partnership with the US Forest Service and the US Department of Interior. Read more.

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