Challenging the terms of collaboration

Adam Kahane

Adam Kahane is a director of Reos Partners, an international social enterprise that helps people move forward together on their most important and intractable issues.

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Welcome to Countless Rebellions, the podcast series that explores the limits and potential of social innovation with academics, practitioners, and activists from across Canada. This series is produced in Montreal, on the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’keha:ka or Mohawk peoples, a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations.

In this episode, I sit down with Adam Kahane, the director of Reos Partners in Montreal, to discuss the importance of collaboration, power, and love in helping understand what social innovation is and what it might be.

When Adam was young, he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. All he knew was that he wanted to be someone who could figure things out. To him, this meant going to school to become an expert, first studying physics, then economics, then corporate planning.

Kahane: The view I had was that you could make a difference in the world and you could deal with important issues and challenges by being one of those people that could figure out what the right answer was. The big shift in my professional biography was when I discovered in the early 1990s that that wasn’t how to deal with important, difficult issues, and that another way, and a more promising way — and a way that I could contribute — had to do with helping people work together to figure that stuff out together.

The way that Adam learned this lesson was not through school, but rather through an experience that profoundly changed his life.

Kahane: The formative experience in my professional life was the experience of being an expert in strategic planning — particularly scenario planning — at Shell in London and going to South Africa in September 1991 to facilitate a group of South African leaders who were trying to figure out how to effect the transition from apartheid to democracy. That’s the event that showed me that there’s another way to work on important and really difficult issues that are complex and conflictual, and that, contrary to what I believed — and I think contrary to what most people believe —  it is possible even for people that don’t agree with, or like, or trust each other to figure stuff out together. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

The thing that I think people misconstrue about this kind of work is that love is all you need. And that people having their own agendas and power and ego is a problem that must be overcome. I think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding.

For you, what is social innovation?

Kahane: Well, I’ve always understood it to mean the intentional efforts to affect social change, or, I guess, intentional efforts to affect societal change. I think the word social in social innovation is a shorthand for social, political, economic, cultural, environmental. And the question I don’t know the answer to is what is the contribution of social innovation to what actually changes in social systems. I really have this nagging concern that 95% of social change is affected through phenomena that are not covered by the domain that’s called social innovation.

What gives you that impression?

Kahane: Well, we’re living this month through what might be the biggest, or one of the biggest, changes in the political and social structure of human society with the phenomenon of the Trump presidency. Were any of the contributors to the ascendance of Trump the result of efforts by people who call themselves members of the social innovation community? I don’t think at all. I think there were probably zero social innovation people involved, except peripherally, in the developments which have produced this era-shifting change. If we’re interested in having an influence on what happens in the world, then we really have to open up our aperture to include work not just in the social realm, but most definitely also political, and technical, and economic, and cultural, and other realms.

The thing that I think people misconstrue about this kind of work is that love is all you need. And that people having their own agendas and power and ego is a problem that must be overcome. I think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding. It’s hopeless. It can work, and is, ultimately, either sentimental or manipulative. And it’s a very widespread belief in this field that if we can all just be one, if we could all just work for the whole, if people could leave their agendas at the door, if people could surmount their ego, if people wouldn’t fight, then everything would be fine. And this is completely incorrect. And the book I wrote called, Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change, is a 200-page riff on one sentence of Martin Luther King Jr. where he made this point where he said: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” I find this sentimental and anemic understanding — that power is the problem and love is the solution — is only half right, and dangerously so. And is very widespread in this field.

So, I think the idea that social innovation is primarily about thinking up something new is only occasionally true. What it’s more often about is an alliance or a group being willing to do together something that had already been thought of.

I think what we see in society is this polarization: you’ve got the power people and the love people. And you see it in couples, and you see it in organizations, you know — the marketing people will be the power part and we’ll leave love to the HR people. Or the wife is the love part and the husband is the power part. Or, the politicians do the power stuff and the social innovators do the love stuff. And I would argue that this is always a bad idea, that choosing one is always a bad idea. That’s choosing either to be reckless and abusive or sentimental and anemic, and this tendency to choose one or to outsource the other is a bad idea. So, I think that in this realm, the central task is for the field and individuals in the field to learn to do both. And not to weaken their stronger drive, but to strengthen their weaker drive. And so, what that means is for the power people to learn the love thing, and for the love people to learn the power thing.

There’s a lot of people I think that you see that are in non-traditional charities they are trying to find new models—

Kahane: Yeah

— that don’t offend people, right? These are things like social finance, these are things like that actually don’t put, you know, they leave stuff that’s going to offend people…And there’s a big chunk of people who don’t want to offend people but want to create new solutions that are win-win-win-win-win. That’s what I understand as the social innovation community. And I’m curious what you think would be – what would happen, what would be possible, what would be the opportunity if that social innovation movement or community took your advice and took that power?

Kahane: Well, I’m not arguing for gratuitously offending people. I’m also not arguing necessarily for direct frontal attack. So, using power doesn’t mean trying to force things on people. But it does mean, well, finding your way between different conflicting interests, and recognizing that there’s almost never anything as easy as a win-win-win-win-win. So, maybe there is sometimes, occasionally — and that’s nice —  but what’s more likely is compromise or “You win this time, I’ll win next time.” Compromises and deals and power plays and trade-offs are not bad things. When I proposed to my publisher Steve Piersanti [of] Berrett-Koehler that I wanted to write a book about collaboration — my new book is called Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, — he said: “The real problem with books on collaboration is, first of all, everyone thinks they learned it in kindergarten. And secondly, they think it involves compromise.”  I said to him, “It absolutely involves compromise.” It absolutely involves compromise. I can’t imagine how anything would get done. So, I think the idea — it’s not that I’m trying to be offensive, or I think it’s good to be offensive — but the idea that nobody would ever be offended, or nobody would have to compromise, or nobody would get dislocated by social change, to me, eliminates 90% of what can be done. That’s all. Politicians understand this. I’m not a politician. In fact, I’ve done no work in politics, but I think there’s a part of this that is obvious to politicians.

But the other thing about social innovation is most people incorrectly believe that it’s about coming up with a new idea — something nobody’s ever thought of before. And it could be, but I think it’s not very often. It’s usually about an old idea, some idea that somebody’s been going on about for years and years, and nobody’s ever listened to.

Angela Wilkinson said to me once that “Most social innovation is relational innovation.” It’s actually people being able to do together — people changing their relationship with each other and, therefore, being able to do something that somebody had an idea about a long time ago. I have a friend who worked for a long time on the peace process in Northern Ireland. And what she said about it is that the solution for the Northern Ireland problem was always known, always in the filing cabinet. What took decades was for people to go to the filing cabinet together. So, I think the idea that social innovation is primarily about thinking up something new is only occasionally true. What it’s more often about is an alliance or a group being willing to do together something that had already been thought of. So, in that sense, the innovation word misleads us into thinking it takes some brilliant new idea. I guess occasionally there are new ideas, maybe in the social finance area, for example. But most of it’s not about new ideas, but about new relationships.

[Song interlude]

Kahane: What I learned first was that it’s possible — it’s possible and it’s even quite easily replicable — for people to meet and talk more than they think they can. That’s important. Certainly, meeting and talking is better than not meeting, or than killing each other, or only fighting each other. And this is not a trivial matter in 2017 where in most parts of the world, people argue — I think correctly — that we’re seeing increasing fragmentation, and polarization, and demonization. So, just the capacity to bring people together across those divides and talk to each other generatively is an accomplishment. However, I think it’s inadequate. What I think is needed even more than dialogue is collaboration, which means not just talking together but working together.

Of course, the big difference is the activity that you mentioned, which is trying stuff out —experimenting. People can talk to each other for a long time and can come to all kinds of conclusions, and probably most of them are wrong. Or probably most of them won’t stand up. So, to go beyond thinking something up to trying it out and seeing whether it works or doesn’t work — experimentation — is a really important next step. However, it’s quite difficult to collaborate, to create a structure or a platform that enables collaboration over months and years because ad hoc cross-organizational, cross-sector teams are difficult to hold together. The area my colleagues and I are working on — or learning about — is how can you create a platform that allows not just for cross-sectoral, cross-organizational, cross-factional dialogue, but ongoing collaboration, and getting stuff done? It’s easy to get stuff done within a single hierarchical organization, where you can decide this is what we’re going to do and your job is to do this and if you don’t want to do it, I’ll get somebody else to do it. Most of the things in the world are organized on that basis. Hierarchy is a very well-established means of getting things done. But how do you get things done with no hierarchy? And again, not just for an hour or a weekend, but over months and years? This is crucial and is not easy.

[Outro song interlude]

Thank you for listening. My name is Scott Baker, this is the Countless Rebellions Podcast brought to you by the McConnell Foundation. To hear more, be sure to check out the other episodes. And if you heard something interesting, share it with someone whom you think might like it. Countless Rebellions is produced by Adjacent Possibilities in collaboration with Brothers DePaul. To learn more about the McConnell Foundation and the work of their grantees, visit