Couples are drawn to divorce mediation in an effort to avoid the ugliness and costliness of litigation. Although they have decided to end their marriage, they are committed to making decisions that are in the best interest of their children. The mediator, by definition, serves as a link between the disputing parties, helping them to clarify their vision and align their decisions with shared goals and objectives. The mediator does not take sides, nor does she allow any discussions or behavior that undermine progress toward the agreed upon outcomes, thus ensuring from the outset that the process will be successful.
It struck me early on that this same model would be a powerful tool for faciliating partnerships, especially those involving colalboration with public schools. Here was my thinking- organizations and social systems have very different philosophies, cultures, priorities, and needs which can make sustainable collaboration very slippery. In fact, left to their own devices, organizations have built-in escape hatches, able to blame one another for failures to execute, follow-through with planned initiatives, or provide necessary support. Because partnerships are often seen as peripheral to individuals’ primary job responsibilities, there is no clear recourse when targets aren’t met. Moreover, since goals are rarely defined or operationalized, partners can frame and communicate their successes independent of external standards or expectations. Like marital crises, these large-scale interpersonal differences and shortcomings can threaten the ultimate health and sustainabilility of the “family”, effectively putting the children in the middle of the dysfunction.
Earnest efforts to capitalize on the promise of strategic collaboration must recognize these tendencies and ensure that all parties are working together toward the greater good. In the world of mediation, this can be achieved through the development of a shared vision that represents a commitment or goal that is highly valued by all parties. In divorce mediation most vision statements focus on the children and involve a commitment to promote their wellbeing. Because the tendency to deviate from this vision and succumb to the negativity and anger associated with divorce can be so strong, mediators often encourage couples to bring pictures of their children to serve as visual reminders, thus leveraging the power of the shared vision to keep them on track.
For community partnerships the importance of a shared vision cannot be overstated. When well crafted, it can provide enough detail to guide efforts while at the same time sufficient latitude to build synergy and generate infinite possibilities. The shared vision can also serve as a roadmap for communicating goals and successes so that all parties can define and promote their impact and continue to build toward further growth. In these ways, the vision statement can be the life of the partnership. But it can also be the death. When poorly articulated or lacking sufficient detail or commitment, the partnership will be difficult to launch and equally challenging to evaluate. And if the inherent benefit and incentives are not made clear at the outset, it will be difficult to get the necessary buy-in and follow through that is essential for success and sustainability.
Clearly, the most disappointing thing about divorce mediation is that it’s never enough to save the marriage. Even when the mediator is able to facilitate civil and sound decision making the relationship is doomed for failure. But what if the mediator could get to the struggling couple a year or two earlier- would a compelling shared vision and a strong mediation process change the outcome? Perhaps there is a limited window of opportunity during which relationships between diverging parties can be strengthened and buttressed and successfully led toward common goals. In the world of community partnerships we are currently within our window of opportunity. Despite the disparate positions and seemingly infinite dysfunction we are all after what is essentially the same vision – citizens who are prepared, motivated, and able to contribute to our world in important and meaningful ways. Our challenge is to harness the power of this shared vision through a process that will lead and guide us toward our important goal.
Like the struggling couple who carry around a picture of their child, we must constantly remind ourselves of the purpose of our work. And rather than oversimplifying the process of collaboration, we must recognize and understand its complexity. Once we acknowledge and appreciate the need for mediators who can serve as keepers of our shared vision, we can finally begin the work of designing and building the “win-wins” that our communities so desperately need.