By Louise Armstrong (Forum for the Future) and Lucy Morris (INTRAC)
What happens when you radically change the rules of the game, during a competitive tender process? This is the story of how Forum for the Future, INTRAC and a group of freelance facilitators, re-wrote the rules for a traditionally competitive tender bid, by role-modelling a process to overcome entrenched power dynamics in the INGO system. What we learned offers insights for others developing collaborative proposals as part of a consortia, or who are about to start collaborative work.
In November 2020, Forum for the Future (Forum), INTRAC and selected freelance facilitators were approached by a commissioning party which wanted to positively disrupt the International Development system. They had invited selected suppliers to bid for a contract as “system change facilitators”, and took the unusual step of putting different ‘competitors’ in touch with each other to explore potential synergies.
The deadline for submitting a proposal was tight, and it would have been much easier for everyone to submit individually. But Forum decided to do something different, and quickly took the initiative. They knew they had some of the skills needed to deliver the contract, but not all of them. Rather than pushing ahead alone, they decided to document their intentions and limitations in a google document, inviting the other potential competitors to do the same and to join an initial conversation about collaborating. It might not sound like much, but for Forum it felt risky, exposing, some have since said courageous even. Meanwhile INTRAC and others were also in discussions with the organisers to seek clarifications, as well as evaluating their own capacity to deliver the contract.
Forum’s invitation to collaborate was hard to resist. Over the course of just a few weeks, 12 people (4 freelancers, and 7 staff from 3 different organisations) came together to collaborate on the bid. It was a diverse group with representatives from Canada, India, Singapore, UK and Zambia amongst others, and we quickly formed a team and shared ideas, and challenged each other’s thinking as well as some of the assumptions underpinning the initiative. The proposition we put forward in our bid resulted in ‘people usually at the margins’ of these projects being placed at the centre of the bid instead of INGOs. INTRAC also introduced the idea of a short research study to review previous, similar ‘shift the power’ initiatives and what’s worked in the past, so as to build on existing experiences rather than starting from scratch. In just a few weeks, the team co-designed a research and facilitation process, based on the skill-sets of the members and rapidly built trust and shared responsibility.
Andrea Rodericks, bid member
It was striking to me how quickly we moved to a trustful space and listened to each other, modelling the kinds of behaviors and nature of facilitation that the work would require.
Catherine Hester, bid member
We took the unspoken decision to accelerate the trust-building part of relationship building, whilst simultaneously co-creating a major proposal.
Sadly, we didn’t win the contract although we were second choice, but what we gained in terms of knowledge and experience was invaluable.
Key lessons for transformative collaboration forming?
1) Create the conditions for transformative collaboration
By role-modelling transparency and trust at the very start of the process, both the commissioning party and Forum created the conditions for others to do the same. It felt risky and required courage, but changed the rules of the game. In turn, this enabled the team to co-design together and to challenge each other, beyond just ‘letting things be’ and being polite. We shifted what we understood to be possible.
2) Learn from what has come before
Each member of the team brought a wealth of experience in designing and facilitating collaborations. We used this opportunity to intentionally surface and build on our previous experience and put it into practice as we worked together. We also built our shared learning into the design of the bid itself.
3) Invest in designing the project infrastructure as well the process
While the Terms of Reference specified process facilitation, we recognised that it was also important to work out the project infrastructure as part of the design phase. This included identifying decision making processes, roles, budgets and working culture. These are the things that become sticking points later unless addressed early on. Designing a project with a power and equity lens, particularly its Governance is a critical lever for change that is overlooked and rarely invested in – but is the critical starter culture for any collaboration.
4) Future collaborations to #shiftthepower
Partnerships and collaborations are an important part of our future. But they will only be successful if they can really embody healthy power dynamics, particularly within the INGO community. Naming the power that comes from being an organisation vs an independent consultant, and using this in positive ways is one example. Starting processes with a spirit of inquiry, which helps to understand power and begin to shift it as needed is another.
Why are we paying attention to the learning from a competitive tender bid that wasn’t successful? ‘Endings’ are often neglected within our sector, where new activities typically attract much more investment, energy and attention. But as a team, we consciously invested time in holding a final learning session, to compost this short burst of energy and activity. In a month we achieved a lot and learnt a lot and designed a process that we’re really proud of. Imagine what we could have done with even more time and connection…
We didn’t secure the contract, but the bid led to different types of collaboration and sharing, and reframing it from a failed bid to an opportunity to learn and grow and release new energy is exciting, liberating and powerful in itself.
If this small example of bringing new constellations of people together can be channelled into the INGO community further, it’s going to be exciting to see what emerges from this work, and we look forward to bouncing ideas and options for alternative support together in the future.