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Shifts to enable radical collaboration for systems change

Reos Partners
April, 2024


There are many calls for systems change and collective action to address the complex societal challenges we’re facing. At the same time, collaboration is becoming increasingly difficult, and traditional approaches to collaboration are becoming increasingly ineffective. 

In this article, we share 7 mental, emotional, and process shifts that, in our experience, enable the rare levels of radical collaboration and creative action that allow system transformation and are now sorely needed.

  1. Let go of “solutions” and dig in for the long haul
  2. Slow down…
  3. …To speed up
  4. Experiment
  5. Give everyone a voice
  6. Collaborate with people you don’t agree with
  7. Step into the confusion

Let's dive in!

Let go of “solutions” and dig in for the long haul

The notion of a discrete solution suggests a neat, discrete problem. At Reos Partners, we don’t set out to “solve” problems as large and complex as energy transition or climate change. Rather, we try to shift and ultimately transform the complex conditions that are generating the problematic situations so that something new, positive, and self-sustaining can emerge.

But true systems change takes time, persistence, and broad collaboration. That’s why we so often work to establish ongoing platforms for change, like the inclusive insurance innovation lab (iii-lab). iii-labs are year-long processes of continuous exchange and learning aimed at developing leadership and innovation capabilities among key stakeholders of the inclusive insurance sector and promoting sustainable innovations that help expand access to insurance.

Working with Reos Partners since 2017, the Access to Insurance Initiative (A2ii) has convened national iii-labs in 15 countries worldwide to increase the uptake of good quality insurance to vulnerable people and businesses. Each country team comprises the regulator, private insurers, NGOs, consumer protection groups and insurance associations.

A map highlighting the countries that have participated in iii-labs so far.

A map highlighting the countries that have participated in iii-labs so far. Image source: A2ii.

New products, services, platforms, and policies alongside new relationships, narratives and leadership skills have been developed, and knowledge sharing has occurred within and across country teams. The teams have prototyped more than 15 concrete innovations that have increased the resilience of vulnerable people and businesses in the participant countries, and examples have been generated that can inspire further action elsewhere.

Slow down…

With climate change bearing down on us, the impulse is to work faster. And, of course, a variety of immediate actions must be taken. But the complex transformation that’s needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change requires that we develop a complex understanding, and that means investing time.

Transformative scenarios are one way to develop a complex understanding. The structured yet open-ended process is an example of what we call a “purposeful detour.” Over the course of about six months, we guide diverse stakeholders in constructing several possible futures around the issue at hand, combining both rigour and imagination. The resulting stories suggest strategies and initiatives for shaping the future.

Consider the semi-arid regions of India and Africa. Home to hundreds of millions of people and already burdened by harsh climates and a scarcity of natural resources, they are especially vulnerable to climate-related impacts and risks. Yet most adaptation efforts have been reactive and short-term. To spur thinking on root causes and long-term adaptation, we undertook a transformative scenarios process for the ASSAR project (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions) to coordinate a response to climate change across India and six African countries (Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, and Namibia).

ASSAR’s diverse teams developed scenarios for what might happen in different “hot spots” in India and regions in Africa, given the growing volatility of water availability. These scenarios served as the foundation for informed discussion, critical thinking, and integrated long-term responses.

10 years later, project participants are still using transformative scenarios to address complex challenges. For instance, Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) and W-CreS, with support from Honeywell, used transformative scenarios to strengthen the resilience of Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) in Maharashtra, India.


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A video sharing how WOTR and W-CreS, with support from Honeywell, used transformative scenarios to visualise a desirable future that strengthens the resilience of FPOs. 

…To speed up

While Reos Partners is focused on working systemically, we’re also excited about using what we’ve learned about long-term systemic intervention to enable smaller, more localised projects to make progress quickly.

The North Netherlands is a region of immense opportunities and possibilities; however, it also faces ongoing hurdles, including poverty, livelihood difficulties, energy transition, nature and agriculture concerns, and excessive reliance on subsidies.

In 2019, we guided 45 stakeholders from diverse backgrounds through a transformative scenarios process (slow down…), in which four possible futures were constructed for the northern region of the Netherlands. This process led to the successful launch of AAN! Noord Nederland and the follow up AAN! Accelerator ( speed up) at the start of 2021.

Five teams gathered in online workshops to accelerate their initiatives. The Accelerator was an action-oriented process designed to support the participants’ aim of creating long-term positive impact for the North Netherlands.

“My key take-away from this process is the importance of bringing different perspectives together and the way we are building something collectively. This is a wonderful journey that is only just beginning.”

AAN! Accelerator participant


Many of the people and organisations we work with struggle to set aside conventional, linear approaches for the more open-ended experimentation that, in our experience, is so effective at breaking up stuck problems. But once they do, it can be eye-opening and revitalising.

The threatened Red Deer River watershed in Alberta, Canada, is one example of a place where fast-changing social, economic, and climate conditions have overwhelmed planning-based management approaches. We helped launch a lab there, Project Blue Thumb, to tackle water quality issues with a hybrid of focused planning and ongoing experimentation.

During any social lab prototyping process, participants are often heartened by the sense of progress as they refine their initiatives relatively quickly.

“There is a renewed sense of vitality among people working to improve watershed health. Before Project Blue Thumb, many of the meetings I attended were low energy. It has sparked a sense that more is possible, that through collaboration we might actually be able to improve watershed health."

Project Blue Thumb lab member

Give everyone a voice

It’s a simple principle: only with a multistakeholder approach can we hope to create something resembling the full picture of a complex system and, subsequently, create initiatives that enable progress. A diverse spectrum of voices and viewpoints is the foundation of any Reos Partners process.

In addition to creating a complete picture, a multistakeholder approach can ease or prevent conflict. For the North Sea Energy Lab in the Netherlands, we brought together offshore wind operators, fishermen, policymakers, NGOs, and others to create a shared understanding of the North Sea’s potential as a source of both food and renewable energy and as an ecosystem.

With fossil energy sources dwindling and a major scale-up of offshore wind farms planned, there was excitement but also tension among varied interests: traditional claims on the Dutch portion of the sea include oil and gas mining, shipping, fisheries, the military, nature reserves, and recreation. The lab was designed to be an inclusive space for creating a new narrative, exploring integrative policies, and experimenting with space and function by pairing small-scale fisheries with offshore wind farms, for example.


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A video about the North Sea Energy Lab that shares the importance of an integral approach.

It’s also our experience that pulling more people into networks and then improving the quality of their relationships sets the stage for breakthroughs. Take Project Blue Thumb, which has brought stakeholders together from municipal and provincial government, the nonprofit sector, academia, forestry, and agriculture. Lab members say that the depth and breadth of their professional networks have improved, and in many cases, so has the depth and breadth of their thinking. Said one, “I have started to see the watershed through multiple lenses rather that just as an engineer.” And another, “What I thought were the issues are not the issues at all.”

Collaborate with people you don’t agree with

It’s not always easy to collaborate, even with people you agree with. Rife with conflicting needs and interests, issues around energy and climate often ask even more of us: to collaborate with people we don’t agree with, like, or trust. The parties may never agree but must find ways to move forward together anyway.

As Adam Kahane, a director at Reos Partners, describes in his book Collaborating with the Enemy, we have learned how to help diverse, competing stakeholders move forward with no expectation of harmony or even any definitive agreement on the problem, never mind the solutions. Instead, the group experiments with multiple possibilities to discover what works, one step at a time. It’s the hallmark of our work.

The North Sea Energy Lab, described above, is one example of purposefully bringing together people who are at odds with one another. In that case, as a way to prevent deeper conflicts from forming during a challenging transition.

Step into the confusion

Facing the enormous scale of societal challenges head-on, thinking and working in new ways, slowing ourselves down when a crisis is upon us, collaborating when it’s uncomfortable – people at every level of a system can find all this difficult, confusing, even distressing at times. But as practiced guides, we design our processes to provide stakeholders with the support and the time they need to feel their way through. On the other side, as we have seen again and again, is a more successful response to the complex challenges we face.


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