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The rollercoaster ride of collaboration

Yorkshire Sport Foundation's development manager talks about working with other organisations to tackle local issues, and how it can be a rewarding process for all parties.

31st December 2022

by Gayle Elvidge
Development manager, Yorkshire Sport Foundation

Collaboration is in my blood. I’d always rather work with other people on stuff.

I enjoy meeting new people, I enjoy the diversity of thought, I enjoy learning from others and I enjoy the richer outcomes.

But, before I skip off through the daisies with my rose-tinted glasses firmly in place, I appreciate it often takes us on a journey.

Sometimes that journey can be like a gentle Sunday drive through the countryside, sometimes it can be like riding Oblivion at Alton Towers, and sometimes like you’ve just packed the car only to find the engine won’t start.

Add in that it’s not just about who you’re collaborating with, but where that fits in a wider system, and suddenly it can be like finding your way through a maze with no idea which way to turn.

So that’s how we ended up in a Maize Maze, on a red-hot sunny day, with a bunch of invited leaders (in the distributed sense) from across a wide spectrum of organisations, looking for discussion-prompting questions in dead ends, trying to find a clear route through to set us off on our journey of discovery.

Sometimes that journey can be like a gentle Sunday drive through the countryside, sometimes it can be like riding Oblivion at Alton Towers, and sometimes like you’ve just packed the car only to find the engine won’t start.

We wanted to understand more about how things work (and sometimes don’t) in our place and the conditions needed to reduce inactivity and narrow inequality through system change.

The maze just seemed like the natural place to start the most recent phase of Navigating Local Systems (NLS) in Wakefield.

The NLS work is one of Sport England’s test and learn approaches aiming to drive real change within a system. 

Stage one taught us that sometimes you have to go around in a big circle, learning all the way, to fully understand your starting point.

By the start of this current stage, we had figured out that how we did things was important.

There are sometimes limited options on what you do, but how you do it is only as limited as your thinking.

This has been the basis for everything we’ve done since the maze.

Learnings and considerations

Since then, we’ve had people using Cluedo cards to talk about working in an asset-based way, we’ve been on an asset treasure hunt taking photos of our local treasures and sharing them in a WhatsApp group; we’ve made and worn different hats to consider sustainability challenges from different perspectives; we’ve blindfolded ourselves and navigated the funder/provider/participant experience; we’ve planted sunflower seeds in a community allotment while talking about the big things that could grow from small beginnings; and we’ve told and heard personal stories about our relationship with physical activity.

People know when they come to a ‘conversation’ we’ve arranged that there are a few things we hold dear:

  • The quality of the invite and the meeting environment is important (quality doesn’t mean expensive!) just as it is in our social lives.
  • Putting people in different spaces and situations puts them in a different mindset.
  • We try to be specific with people about why their individual contribution is valued, sometimes this means following up with people to say ‘hope you’re able to come because we know you’re great at…’.
  • We snowball (even in summer) - we invite people and we ask them to bring a friend, and it’s never too late to get involved.
  • We connect personally to the work and each other - we try to build a sense of friendship and team.
  • There’ll always be some modelling of different approaches that people can take away and try in different contexts.
  • There’s always an opportunity to be a bit active.

We evaluated what we were doing and got positive feedback: people told us our engagement methods were different; people learned new facilitation approaches and told us they would use them back in their own work; people had connected outside of the conversations; we heard we are great system conveners. A-Mazing!

We’d laid some strong foundations, and people were on board and acting as allies.

We were riding high on that good old rollercoaster! And then there was this: ‘Honestly it was genius, but ...’

We heard that to keep moving forward we need to figure out how to keep momentum between the group conversations; turn the small shoots of collaboration into something stronger; define a clearer common purpose that places sport and physical activity more prominently; and continue to define and align objectives so that our contribution knits into the fabric of the other big pieces of work happening in the district.

Challenge accepted!

And this is where the journey is taking us next, we need to keep navigating the whole-system maze, riding Oblivion and sometimes getting the jump leads out to re-start the car.

But we know we’ll get there because we’ve filled a few potholes in along the way, we’ve got some clear way-markers, and we’ve got some great people willing to help draw the map.

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