Partnerships & The Four Innovation Killers

This is an extract from a piece I wrote in August 2008 – Let’s Be Honest:


Evaluation, Innovation and Collaboration – which was published recently by NAME. It was aimed at music education, but I think the context can applied universally…..

The full publication can be ordered here . You can also download the full text of my chapter by clicking on the archive section of my website.

Matthew Horne recently asked, ‘Why are there few innovations that radically transform outcomes for children in the education system?’ It’s a good question, and one which could be directed particularly at partnerships formed in, and across, the public and ‘third’ sectors (voluntary and community groups, social enterprises, charities, cooperatives, etc) . Elsewhere in this book you will hear many heartening examples of effective partnerships in music education. But it’s also the case that developing effective partnerships is hard work, and if we are to put in all that work, well, we ought to feel that the whole is worth considerably more than the sum of the parts. And, as a participating partner, and an evaluator/mentor of others’ partnerships over many
years, I’ve seen too many partnerships which have come to an end accompanied by a mild sense of disappointment; where the practical delivery work was fine, but the bigger aspirations – to do something different, to change the way things got done – somehow gets lost along the way.

So, what causes this loss, and how might we try to prevent it from happening? I believe there are four main factors which impede those operating in the public and third sector from creating the right environment for collaborative innovation.

Identifying the real issues

The first is the absence of a culture where honest, respectful but self-critical debate is actively sought and valued. Part of the problem is that the political and funding climate predisposes organisations towards overly positive analyses of the fruits of their collaborations and away from constructively admitting where things have gone wrong (and things go wrong all the time in partnerships), so we don’t find out about the issues which offer the real learning potential.

There’s a myth around ‘best practice’. People like me are asked to identify it, and leading organisations are asked to document it, because the rest of the arts and education community will ‘learn’ from it. The only problem is, it’s not true – we learn more from less-good, even worst, practice. Creative people usually have no difficulty in realising how high-quality work can be achieved. They’re less good at seeing the crises looming up behind, so seeing how disasters elsewhere could have
been averted would perform a valuable service.

Instead, however, there’s a section in the evaluation report which sheepishly concedes that more time should have been allowed for planning; that shared
objectives could have been clearer; that better, or more frequent, communications would have led to less confusion; or that it’s still not known if the partnership will be sustainable, because we need more time (and money). Result? A mountain of un-read evaluations (even the funders only skim them). On a serious note, however, the repeated avoidance of publicly opening up to self-critical scrutiny is, at best, a missed opportunity and, at worst, a waste of public money.

Too many partnerships are fearful – with good reason – that such frankness might come back to haunt them in the form of the sponsor’s censure or even withdrawal of future funding. So they decline to go further than the obvious, and safe. Let’s be honest: you can never have enough time for planning; re-written objectives would always appear clearer at the end of the project than at the start, and confusion is inevitable if you’re trying something that’s both challenging and innovative. (More than inevitable, it’s desirable.) What we, the external audience, need to know are the fundamental questions which determine the success of partnerships: How transparent were the partners in dealing internally with difficult issues as they arose? How were the (inevitable) balances of power and responsibility handled internally? How democratic was decision-making, and how involved in the partnership were young people? How flexible was the partnership when innovations floundered?

We refrain from this kind of thing – at least externally – since it might be seen as ‘washing our dirty linen in public’. And, since most partnerships are local or regional, it isn’t wise to upset peer organisations that we regularly work with. But we do a disservice to the principle of self-evaluation if we avoid these difficult questions.

Risk aversion

The second innovation-blocker is inherent risk aversion. This is seen most starkly in large government-led initiatives but the trickle-down effect seeps into many publicly-funded projects, initiatives and organisations throughout the system. This is particularly regrettable in the context of collaboration, of which we are all being asked to do more. I would argue that the main, if not only, reason for collaborative partnerships to form should be to break new ground, to innovate, and we simply can’t do this without taking risks.

Resistance to change

The third is resistance to change – from a number of quarters. Organisations occasionally view their involvement in partnership working as an opportunity to reach new audiences/client groups through their existing provision and practices, to reinforce the brand, rather than a chance to re-examine what they do and why they do it. Even when a desire to embed innovation through collaboration is held by senior managers, it usually requires strong and visionary leadership to persuade practitioners to abandon long-held practices and explore new, often uncomfortable, areas of professional development. Additionally, schools can often be remarkably change-resistant institutions. In spite, or perhaps because, of a torrent of inflicted change over the past 20 years, pedagogies and internal cultures have remained
resiliently durable. Most government-driven change is incremental in nature, and is often target, rather than process, focused – simply put, schools have been told to ‘do more, work harder’, and only lately have been allowed to work differently. That said, it’s important to note that some of the most radical and innovative initiatives currently being seen in the education sector stem from voluntary ‘collaboratives’
of schools who are making the most of recent relaxation of school constraints. Their response has been to combine resources, timetables and expertise to transform learning opportunities for local students. (See Charlie Leadbeater’s for an analysis of ‘next practice’ in our leading-edge schools.) Finally, perhaps, there are those most resistant to change: the British media and, by influence, many of their parental readers. Since music is widely perceived as ‘a good thing’ in a child’s education, however – so long as it doesn’t detract from the ‘serious’ academic subjects – innovation through collaboration here gets a relatively free passage from both quarters.

Predicting the outcomes

The fourth, though perhaps the most significant, factor is the way in which what I would term ‘incentivised’ partnership initiatives (by which I mean those collaborations which are formed to deliver specific funded projects) are too often boot-strapped by outcomes and outputs, before they can even begin. In an understandable, though nevertheless misguided, attempt to assure ‘value for money’, funders typically invite consortia to bid for much needed support on the basis of the numbers of young people benefiting, or proof that the proposed
intervention will be successful. In a collaboration which is genuinely trying to create new ways of working the only honest response to either request is ‘we simply don’t know’. Since that is deemed to be the wrong answer, all parties engage in a collusive game of ‘think of a number’ and/or ‘think of a solution’. Instead, we should acknowledge that attempting to find solutions which have hitherto evaded individual organisations’ grasp (the only logical reason for creating partnerships) makes unique demands upon consortia, and predictable outcomes can’t be guaranteed. In doing so, we might come to see that by recasting partners from ‘delivery agents’ to action researchers, we can gain fresh insights which can be transferable, and replicable, elsewhere.

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