Each afternoon at five, the minister in the small town would walk down to the railroad tracks and watch the train go by. He would watch until the caboose disappeared from sight. Someone finally asked him why he did it and he responded:  “It’s the only thing in town that moves that I don’t have to push.”

For twenty years, I kept making the same mistake in the church I served as a minister. The church’s constitution required certain positions and committees to be filled so I went out and found as many square pegs as I could to fit in round holes. I had a mandate by an antiquated document to fill a slot, so I filled slots with any warm body I could.  And then kept being surprised that the people in those slots were often ineffective and apathetic.

I’m pretty dense sometimes and it took me a while to figure out the issue wasn’t with the people; it was with my approach to filling the slots of the model.  I was making decisions about who went where instead of letting people choose for themselves.  And we were so bound to the 125-year-old model that it never occurred to us to say, “Okay, if no one wants the position, we just won’t fill it this year.” We were pretty sure God wrote the church constitution and, if we varied from it, we’d get zapped by a bolt of lighting.

Four years ago, I traveled to visit my good friends Drs. June Henton and Harriet Giles at Universities Fighting World Hunger at Auburn University.  They had national summits each year, but I wanted to have some kind of hunger-related conference in Kansas just for Kansas. Out of that conversation came the Kansas Hunger Dialogue.  The purpose was to gather the administration, faculty, and students from the universities, colleges, and community colleges in Kansas to have a conversation that matters.

As I began to build it, I consistently reminded myself of my temptation to pound square pegs into round holes so as I visited university and college presidents, I learned one of the most valuable tools of building collaboration that exists: share your basic ideas, then ask for their advice.

I would say, “I have an idea- and I’m happy to do all the legwork-but I’d like to get all the colleges and universities in Kansas together focus on the topic of hunger.  But I’ve never done that before so could you give me advice about how to do that?

Each person I asked that question became both a valuable resource and part of the leadership that brought it all together.

It worked because we created a model where they could insert their professional skills and gave them the opportunity to create as well as accomplish the objectives of their jobs.

If people are allowed to insert themselves into the vision and thereby shape it, they are going to be far more passionate and engaged. If people feel like their being pounded like square pegs into round holes of a vision they’ve not been allowed to shape, then they will feel factory workers at an assembly line.

I no longer ask myself, “How can I get that person to accomplish my vision?” Instead, I ask myself, “How can I engage that person to become a part of the vision with their expertise, passion, and creativity?  Does my model allow people the opportunity to see a spot where they can insert themselves and, thereby, shape the vision?”

The Most Effective Tool for Building Collaboration in my Toolbox

      •  I share my basic vision
      •  I ask for advice
      •  Then take notes

It’s amazing how easy it is to engage people if they are approached this way!

By the way, The Fourth Annual Kansas Hunger Dialogue is coming up on February 26 in Wichita. And while I’m a small part of it, the Kansas Campus Compact, K-State University, and the 20 colleges that came the first year picked up the ball and ran with it.  They made it their own. That’s the power of collaboration.