Groupwork Centre Blog

How collaborating literally changed lives for the better

Four young girls in a garden, happily playing with flower petals

When your ultimate aim is better client outcomes, invest in collaboration

Five years ago, the Department of Human Services was seeking tenders for a new approach to service delivery to young and pregnant mums who were a part of the Out of Home Care system. Their research found that a very high percentage of the next generation end up in the same situation.

So they developed an innovative program on how to become great mums and go beyond this cycle. The Cradle to Kinder program staff journey with young mums from 26 weeks pregnant to when their child starts kindergarten.

It called for a diverse range of experitise. Liz Bishop was General Manager, Disability and Children’s Services at Melbourne City Mission (MCM) at the time. She and many of her staff had received Groupwork Institute training in collaborative leadership, and this is her story:

“At MCM, we had a lot of the skill sets, but couldn’t claim mastery of all of them. We wanted the best of the best – so we sought to collaborate.

We gathered five organisations: none of us had all the skills required, but in partnership we had it covered. Between us, we offered maternal and child health services; child protection; support for indigenous mums and people with disabilities; and childcare for when mums wanted to go back to school, or a classroom where they could bring their children. We took the role of lead agency.

We did a lot of talking about what it would look like, facilitating decisions about governance, service management and on the ground. We put a structure in place and created a memorandum of understanding between the parties. In the tender, we included how the collaborative structure would look and work, including dispute resolution.

Together we won the tender.

We had meetings to establish, recruit and allocate people from different organisations for the various roles, and introduced a supervision structure that worked well across and between agencies.

It was a radically different approach to collaborate like this, rather than keeping cards close to your chest and saying ‘they’re my staff, and stay under me‘.

The program has been fantastic; the stats are through the roof for positive results; it’s now extended to school age because it’s been so successful. We have gone on to win more tenders in that area with similar groups of agencies.

Challenges in our collaboration

How could we lead and guide the conversation with other agencies without coming across as being too dominant? Especially for a large, established organisation – other agencies will think ‘of course they want to be in charge’. We needed credibility.

We also needed to:

  • Talk about what might happen when things go wrong – you can’t be Pollyanna about it, pretending everything will be fine.
  • Walk the talk – demonstrating the things you talk about is how you operate – don’t just talk about collaboration, you need to do it.
  • Take time to make collaborative decisions
  • Say up front the things that are immovable for your organisation, eg safety comes first
  • Look for those things that could go wrong, so there are no surprises
  • Do a lot of testing to see what works

We took a collaborative approach in managing our teams

A lot of us have adopted groupwork skills in leadership, which include

  • Being open
  • Encouraging others to speak up
  • Testing for agreement
  • Taking time to get agreed decisions; this pays off in the long run
  • Not being didactic, staying open to other people’s ideas, from a place of not judging

It takes nurturing, but the feedback was great!

If your ultimate aim is better client outcomes, you’ll invest in it

Because that’s what’s going to bear fruit; collaborating for positive results for your client, organisation or community.

Good management is all about people really, managing relationships – people wont’ listen to you, cooperate or follow you if they don’t feel that they’re valued. Your number one leadership skill is engaging with people; many people leave organisations because of a poor relationship with their immediate manager.

If the watercooler talk is all about what an a*#!hole the boss is; staff won’t be supportive or listen to your ideas. Develop your collaborative leadership skills and make a positive difference for  you, your team, your clients and beyond.”

Liz Bishop, previously General Manager, Disability and Children’s Services at Melbourne City Mission is a graduate of the Groupwork Institute’s Advanced Diploma of Group Facilitation.

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