Dealing with complexity together

There is an inherent tension between designing and planning long term projects and the execution of those plans; the world in which they have been planned doesn’t exist anymore when the project starts. As Greek Philosopher Heraclitus said in the 5th century B.C.: “You could never step into the same river twice”. Knowing this, projects have to take a flexible, adaptive approach to be successful. This is hard enough when working on a project as one organization, but even harder when you work in a collaboration with multiple organizations.

To manage the complexity of a multi-stakeholder process, whether it is a partnership, consortium or any other form, the tendency is to do the exact opposite of looking for flexibility; coming up with strict agreements and plans. However, if the context in which this agreement was made has changed, the agreement may no longer be beneficial for partners or other stakeholders. Which leads a less initiative, tension amongst partners and ultimately a lack of results.

That is why we believe that flexibility is of key importance for a multi-stakeholder process.

Collaborating like a Jazz group

If flexibility is one of the key success factors of a multi-stakeholder process, this implies constant negotiation to meet everyone’s (changing) interests. The art of working in a multi-stakeholder process is to do this negotiation most effectively.

Michael Wheeler, an emeritus professor of Harvard Law School compares negotiation with jazz music, in which improvisation plays a very big part.

"There are things that great jazz musicians understand that apply directly to negotiations. I'm not speaking metaphorically. By emulating what jazz masters do, we all can become better negotiators… [In both Jazz and negotiation] you know where you want to go, but you don't know how to get there. It's not linear.[1]"

He quotes the great trumpeter Wynton Marsalis who made the same connection. “The real power of jazz is that a group of people can come together and create art, improvised art, and can negotiate their agendas with each other. And that negotiation is the art."

This doesn’t mean that you can get into a negotiation or collaboration process without thorough preparation. Jazz musicians also have to understand and agree on the framework (scales, measures etc.) of the music they make in order to improvise. 

Discussing the framework is the start of your process but not the end. A shared ambition, the understanding of each other’s interest, a budget, a learning strategy and an organizational structure are important parts of the framework and need to be discussed before you start. But the real process, the ongoing negotiation, starts after that. And over time even that framework can change if needed.

The second parallel between good jazz musicians and good negotiators is the ability to deeply listen to the others and adapt. Wheeler says: "When the other person is speaking, you still need to sound the notes that coax them in the right direction. That means listening for some nugget, some idea that they put forth, that you can shape in a way that advances your mutual interests."

Diplomat and negotiator for the UN Lakhdar Brahimi describes his experience in negotiation processes in the same way: “Keep an open mind and be ready to change and adapt to the situation. Don't ask reality to conform to your blueprint but transform your blueprint to adapt to reality.”

Develop your skills

In order to reach their goals most organizations have to work in multi-stakeholder processes. Working with other rganizations requires a less hierarchical way of managing your projects or programs and a more negotiation-based approach. In this approach a clear framework of shared ambitions is the start. After that there a constant openness to respond to each other’s needs and to the changing world outside is necessary. This constant negotiation is needed for two reasons:

1. To increase impact and improve results of your project (whether it is financially or in terms of social impact).

2. To make sure the project still fits the interests of the stakeholders and therefore to keep stakeholders motivated to put their full effort in the project

This requires negotiation skills for the people involved, of which preparation and improvisation are two important examples. This is a skill set undervalued in many organizations but more and more needed when you want to have impact with your activities.

For more information, please contact the author of this writing – Mr. Mart Scheepers, Trainer & Consultant, MDF Asia Myanmar office at If you would like to learn further how to manage the partnerships effectively, please consider our training on Making Partnerships Work.

[1] Michael Wheeler - The art of negotiation, 2013