Resurgent cities, collaborative governance, and the Muppets
Tips and lessons from the Boston Fed’s Working Cities Challenge
Revitalizing our country’s small, post-industrial cities is no easy task. The Boston Fed’s Working Cities Challenge is an initiative designed to support cross-sector (public, private and nonprofit), collaborative efforts focused on improving the quality of life and economic opportunities for low-income families in smaller, struggling communities. It encourages cross-sector collaborative leadership, community engagement, and a focus on systems change. In considering what makes a collective impact effort successful, it is important that new teams understand questions and apply lessons related to governance, that is, how will their team get along and make decisions?
We think of governance as relating to the norms, values, and processes a team uses to organize themselves and make decisions; or the structure, functions, and processes used by a team to make decisions and pursue a shared result. Recently, the Boston Fed convened leadership teams from five Connecticut cities – Danbury, East Hartford, Hartford, Middletown, and Waterbury – to discuss and practice the art of governance. To help address the key questions that governance answers, we had team’s consider their Muppet nature.
In a 2012 Slate article “Chaos Theory: A Unified Theory of Muppet Types,” Dahlia Lithwick suggests humans can be classified as two types of Muppets: “chaos” or “order.”
According to Lithwick, so-called chaos Muppets, “are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter ‘C.’ Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, and Animal, are all Chaos Muppets.”
Order Muppets, on the other hand, Lithwick says, “tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, and averse to surprises. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet.”
We asked Working Cities Challenge Connecticut leaders to explore their dominant Muppet-personality, as well as that of their team. If an entire team is comprised of “chaos” personalities – and/or the team is a mix but hasn’t articulated a governance model – the team’s results will undoubtedly be chaotic. If a team is made up of primarily “order” personalities, this may stifle the creativity and adaptive thinking necessary to approach and address a community’s challenge in a fresh, impactful way.
Addressing key governance questions head-on is important because strong cross-sector leadership is a critical contributor to effective, collaborative work. Ensuring diverse, relevant, and appropriate representation can contribute to the implementation of early and systemic changes—especially if members, and the organizations they represent, are committed, well-informed, and effectively engaged. By methodically reviewing the key areas of responsibility and documenting decisions, disagreements that often result from differences in assumptions, perspective, role, and function can be minimized or avoided.
Teams that avoid governance questions do so at their own peril. Have you ever been involved with a team where governance has gone awry? There’s nothing fun about a messy meeting, a flawed decision-making process, or sluggish progress on a community issue. Here is a starter list of governance challenges to keep in mind when establishing governance:
- Selecting a capable team lead
- Distributing leadership across the team
- Lack of clarity about specific roles and responsibilities
- Avoid confusion over who makes decisions and how they are made
- Creating opportunities for team members to engage and take leadership roles
- Finding the right balance of involvement from those involved -- from senior executives to project staff
- Establishing effective processes for communication
- Bringing on new partners
At the end of the day, effective Working Cities Challenge teams develop a strong and flexible infrastructure to support and build team member’s ability to work together and guide the initiative’s work. These teams have explored and determined the allocation of key responsibilities between the backbone agency and the larger collaborative of member organizations. Effective teams also consciously develop a governance structure that is inclusive, supports the shared result, and engages diverse, local resident leadership in meaningful ways.
The choices a team makes about governance says a lot about what’s important. Governance is the heartbeat of a team’s work – and not prioritizing it will lead to poor results, including a lack of progress or even people leaving a team. Importantly, governance is a shared responsibility and one that needs revisited and refreshed on a regular basis.
In the end, teams will sharpen their governance by not just talking about it, but by moving forward on thoughtfully developed action plans. Having a mix of Muppet personalities doesn’t hurt either—but take care: too many order Muppets could mean that a certain blue monster eats all of the cookies—and that’s a governance challenge that no one wants to face.