While on Sabbatical, I took the opportunity to reflect on many of the seminal moments in the company’s first decade or so of existence. As you might imagine, several themes continuously emerged as I reflected on our work and our impact. At the very top of the list sits the theme of collaboration.

After hundreds of engagements on a wide variety of topics, I can confidently say that one of the clearest lessons I’ve learned in my career is that collaboration, indeed, is a choice. Collaboration is hard. It takes effort and persistence. It requires humility and empathy. It calls on us to do so many things that, for many, do not come easily.

There is one project in particular that stands out as being among the clearest examples of how individual choices and decisions can influence the tone, tenor, and likelihood of collaboration. Back in 2013, we were engaged by the Noyce Foundation and given the task of facilitating a meeting of the presidents and chief executive officers of the largest and most prominent youth development organizations in the United States.

The senior most leaders of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the YMCA, the National 4-H Council, and Girls Inc. were all at the table. Individually, they reached hundreds of thousands of youth. Collectively, they could reach millions. My task was to design and to facilitate a half-day conversation with these CEOs, many of whom knew each other only by name. Our goal was to explore whether they would be interested in exploring a potential partnership that would bring their collective resources to bear on the challenge of exposing low-income children of color to possible careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

The initial meeting ended on a promising note, with all parties agreeing to continue the discussion. I was asked to design and to facilitate additional discussions. Needless to say, we held numerous meetings in different cities over the course of a year. But there was one meeting in particular that proved to be an enormous challenge.

Eventually, the model we were developing required each party to make commitments of time and money; commitments that for some would potentially stretch them and their organizations to their limits. For some in the room, they had the capacity to handle what was being requested of them. But for others, the “lift” as executives like to say, was too much.

The tension was high and polite exchange had been replaced by an intense candor.┬áThere came a moment in the conversation where it looked as if some of the parties might choose to walk away from the table. But they chose to stay and they eventually chose to collaborate. The result is Imagine Science, a terrific partnership among the nation’s youth development organizations.

There comes a time in all collective conversations where the parties involved have to choose to collaborate. Choices like these, however, do not occur in a vacuum. They take place within a shared context. You can influence the context in which these choices are made, hopefully making it more conducive for people to say yes. It takes work and it takes foresight.

In our case study, Imagine Science, I explain how our design process created an environment that encouraged people to say yes to collaboration and how you can do the same.

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