By Carlo Cuesta

Before the panel discussion began at the Charities Review Council’s 2015 Philanthropy 2.0: Radical Collaboration event, Judy Alnes, executive director of MAP for Nonprofits, turned to me and said that in 2013 they worked with Daniel Wordsworth at the American Refugee Committee (ARC) who was one of the panelists. She explained that MAP facilitated ARC’s collaboration conversations with Questscope – a Syrian-based education organization. The conversations resulted in a parent-subsidiary relationship between the two organizations. It took me a moment to take in the magnitude of this accomplishment. Amidst a war that has displaced millions and millions, causing the worse humanitarian crisis in a generation, a group of people in Minnesota and Syria paved the way for what has become a collaborative solution delivering much needed humanitarian aid to those who need it most.

After the panel began, Mr. Wordsworth made an important distinction between collaborating to solve “difficult problems” versus “complex problems.” He explained a “difficult problem“ is trying to figure out how to get clean water into a refugee camp. It’s hard, takes a lot of expertise and coordination, but its not impossible to figure out. A “complex problem” is how to build an operation to serve refugees in a war-torn country a world away. Here, there is no clear path forward, no agenda or easily definable objectives.

According to Wordsworth, “complex problems” require co-creation. This is when one individual or organization does not know the way forward and has no choice but to work with others to create a solution. In this domain, answers to questions are hard to come by and at times even with your collaborators it feels like you are searching together in the dark. This makes leaders and their organizations feel vulnerable. For me, courage is the word that comes to mind when I hear stories about people engaged in co-creation. In hindsight, the act of tackling a complex thorny problem seems so courageous, yet that doesn’t quite capture the reality of it. The nerve it takes to live with the ambiguity throughout a creative process while leaning into those voices and feelings that tell you to turn back, not to trust yourself or others; yet you and your collaborators persist above all else. That is brave.

If we are not careful, collaboration (and moreover co-creation) will go the way of teamwork. It will become a leadership fad. We will be made to think that it comes in nine easy steps, when in fact there are few, if any, roadmaps for this kind of work. We must avoid being lax in our approach, otherwise we will turn back when seemingly difficult problems turnout to be complex ones. For Wordsworth and the many others who are not named here, they stood together in that difficult, unyielding creative space and hung in there. That’s all that matters.