June 2023

The Top Practices of an Effective Backbone Team

Collaboration for Impact (CFI) has for many years brought  together members of backbone teams across Australia for learning, networking and knowledge sharing, including through our Public Learning Program. 

Backbone teams are the engine room of collaborative change initiatives. They are the teams that create the container for change: they live and breathe the work (and health) of the collaborative and keep us grounded in the common agenda, all whilst their eye is scanning the next horizon. Simply, they have one foot on the dancefloor and one foot on the balcony. 

CFI works with a range of backbone teams, from those that are new to the work and stepping boldly into system and place based change, through to those who have been leading collaborative change for some time and looking to extend their practice. This includes teams that are at a critical stage of their change journey, such as elevating their impact to work more systemically, in more equitable ways, and in ways that bring other collaborators alongside their initiatives. 

Rather than writing a textbook or ‘how to’ manual for backbone teams (because this is truly  emergent work and needs to be responsive to  context is powerful), CFI continues to draw on the evidence from the literature and the insights from the field. In turn CFI is also building on this evidence base through our own strategic learning, alongside our partners, so we can demonstrate how change initiatives in Australia need to be powered-up. 

As part of this strategic learning approach, we are refining insights on the skills, mindsets, networks and platforms that are needed  across the field in order to work and lead systemically. This involves spotting patterns and shared experiences, where emerging and innovative practice is showing promise, and observing what bright spots are popping up in the field. 

As the artwork here represents, a close view of practices may appear diverse and incoherent or contradictory.  However, from a wider view we can see well-walked paths, repeating moves and patterns of arrangements and agreement.

Developing these insights requires a meeting of people over time so the paths can be rendered into view. This year, Kate Willams (CFI Collaborative Change Practitioner)  and Eula Rohan (CFI Associate Consultant), piloted an innovative method for building knowledge between learning cohorts to realise collective wisdom. Here we share our sensemaking on what 41 participants from our 2022 “Backbone Bootcamp” and 2023 “Collaborative Change and the Role of the Backbone” online workshop series found are the most important practices, mindsets and skills required within effective backbone teams:  

Below are the top four mindsets and related practices that people from our Backbone Learning Networks have identified as most important:

Visionary – Amongst all the other scenarios, I believe in a positive vision for the future.

There will be times where fatalism and cynicism surface in any change initiative and the backbone team will be called on to hold fast to the collaboration’s audacious and inspiring vision for change. With this mindset every backbone team needs a healthy counter-balance of optimism, hope and tenacity for the desired transformation.

ResiliencyI’m ok with being uncomfortable, and I will model this to others in my collaboration.

There are few of us who could say we like conflict, and it is by nature uncomfortable. Therefore this mindset is more about building the muscle that recognises both the inner and outer work of collaboration, and sees the tricky moments as a gift. Because these are most likely the moments that move things forward. Difference, conflict and hard conversations are the hallmark of creating shared spaces, shared value and common purpose. And if we are to address equity, including centering the experiences of First Nations people, this is often the pathway. Simply, if we avoid or short circuit these conversations we are at risk of replicating the system that created the problem in the first place.  

OpennessI’m comfortable and familiar with working in uncertainty and trust we will find the next best steps, together. 

This mindset and practice comes into play in a number of situations – from micro moments of uncertainty (wondering if the right people will attend the workshop), to broader issues (taking the necessary time to surface a common problem before rushing into a solution), right through to distal effects of a change initiative (will this truly bring about the desired outcomes and systemic transformations?). Embracing uncertainty doesn’t mean that we don’t set expectations and boundaries within the collaboration, such as agreed upon behaviours or guiding principles, or having a solid framework for enquiry like a shared measurement system. Instead, it means that sometimes we need to remain firm and not get pulled towards taking actions that may not progress the initiative and instead are actions for action’s sake. 

GrowthI am always enquiring, learning, and enabling others to learn. 

Backbone teams are continually learning across three related domains: (1) about collaborative and systems change (the literature, evidence or body of work related to this type of change), (2) in relation to the focus issue, target population or place we are collaborating on (for example population level data sets, the literature related to early years development, etc), and finally (3) in the adaptive practice and collaborative process we need to apply to lead the change initiative. In addition to their own learning, backbone teams play a significant role in translating and implementing their knowledge and practices  to the collaborative, thus facilitating the learning of others. Backbone teams share data and insights to inform strategy and action, hold learning sessions around core elements of systems change and collaboration, and do the often invisible adaptive work that shows up in facilitating, building relationships, creating a collaborative container and influencing the conditions necessary for effective change. 

CFI plans to extend this work with the next Backbone learning cohort by co-creating a Backbone team skills matrix. This tool will visually map core competencies of effective backbone teams. A skills matrix will be useful to backbone leaders developing position descriptions or planning learning and development programs for their teams. The tool will also serve as a self-evaluation guide for those working on the front-line in supporting backbone teams

We invite you to contribute to this collective project by enrolling in the next “Collaborative Change and the Role of the Backbone” offering. To stay up to date, please sign up to the Learning Program Mailing list for course dates and news.

Co-Authored by Alison Harwood and Andrew Yardy.

[Insert Artwork by Andrew Yardy]

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