Tips for Successful Collaboration Kick-off Events

I recently had the pleasure of facilitating one of my favorite kinds of meetings – a kick-off for a new collective action project. The topic was habitat conservation for monarch butterflies and pollinators in the state of Missouri and the mission was to bring key players together to co-create a first-ever collaborative statewide conservation strategy. These meetings are like big games in sports: If it doesn’t go well, it hurts. You have lost a golden opportunity to help a unique collaboration get started on the right foot, and will have to work a lot harder to ensure success. But when it goes well, the group builds the momentum, connections, and buy-in needed to succeed. And that makes any facilitator smile.

So how can you set up such a meeting for the win?

1. Get the right people there.

Getting the right diversity of players in the room is the first and perhaps most important step to a successful kick-off meeting. These events offer opportunities to bring together different actors within a system who rarely work together but have a shared interest in the topic at hand. Usually your client is responsible for this success factor, so it’s critical to support and advise them in convening all the right people.

Our Missouri Monarch team did a fantastic job with this. With a compelling invitation and personal outreach, they successfully recruited key players from conservation groups, state parks, private land-owners, city governments, youth education, agriculture groups, and the department of transportation, among others. These unlikely allies came together with great enthusiasm to explore creative ways to collaborate and protect butterflies.

2. Design for connection and shared understanding.

As Ag Innovations President Joseph McIntyre said in one of his recent blogs, every meeting is really about three things: networking, learning, and action. Collaboration kick-off meetings are especially exciting opportunities to fit in a whole lot of all three of those values into one high-leverage meeting. No matter what the topic or specific meeting goals, our main job as process designers is to make sure participants have ample opportunity to do the following things during a collaboration kick-off:

  • Build personal relationships with their future collaborators.
  • Develop a shared understanding of the problem they are addressing.
  • Exchange vital information about existing work and resources.
  • Develop shared goals for addressing the problem together.
  • Buy into the value of collaboration. Participants should leave with a sense of the impact they can have together that wouldn’t be possible if tackled alone.
  • Define next steps, roles, and commitments for ongoing collaboration.

This is the foundation of a successful kick-off meeting for a budding collaborative. Achieve these, and you’re off to a good start.

3. Design for culture-building.

Culture-building is another important design consideration. With a kick-off meeting, you are creating the foundation for the new culture of your network, and all too often we don’t make the best use of this opportunity. Talk to your design team about what kind of culture they want to create, and include little touches to support these goals. Generally, we want to give people the all-too-unusual experience of a meeting that is interactive, informative, professional, trust-enhancing, enjoyable, and makes good use of collective intelligence. Happy participants will be much easier to engage down the road.

4. Design for flexibility. 

As a facilitator, I intentionally design the final portion of these meetings to be open-ended, as I’ve come to learn that you cannot force or predict the speed with which a group will move through the foundational ‘forming’ work. Depending on the length of your kick-off meeting and the ease with which the group comes to a shared understanding of the problem and goals, you might also have time to begin building out a strategy to meet your goals. You should be prepared to maximize a fast-moving group’s time if they get through all of the above steps with time to spare.

This is a great moment in the meeting to use Open Space social technology. With Open Space, you let participants choose the topics they wish to discuss. This method allows the group to move forward in their process, whether they still need to align their goals, discuss key issues, or are ready to create a collaborative governance structure. Open Space let’s you facilitate dialogue without guessing or predetermining what the important conversations should be. It can also be a great way to practice a ‘can do’ action-oriented culture. Participants get to roll up their sleeves and dig into the issues together before closing out the day with next steps and reflections.

5. Follow up!

We sometimes put a huge effort into a kick-off meeting, yet don’t plan well for follow up. Without the motivating deadline of an upcoming event, follow up from organizers can be slow and unfocused, and it’s easy to lose your participants’ trust and attention. To avoid this pitfall, try including a follow up engagement strategy as part of your meeting design process. You might also calendar your follow up meetings ahead of time, and plan for adequate time to synthesize notes and next steps for each meeting. A quick post-event debrief to review these actions, responsibilities, and deadlines can also help you lead by example with enthusiastic and active engagement even after the meeting ends.

Good luck! And if you have any questions or need support setting up a new group for success, give us a call. We’d love to help.