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The Denver Experience: Lessons Learned

In their 1989 book, Teamwork: What Must Go Right/What Can Go Wrong, Carl E. Larson and Frank M.J. Lafasto described eight characteristics found in high performing teams: a clear, elevating goal; a results-driven structure; competent team members; a unified commitment; a collaborative climate; standards of excellence; external support and recognition; and principled leadership. The discussion below uses these characteristics as a framework to analyze the planning and collaboration of VS2000. What worked? What did not? What lessons were learned?

1. Establish a Clear, Elevating Goal

  • Base the project goal on project values. At the inception of the project, Denver VS2000 convened a facilitated, all-day, team-building session attended by members of the planning committee who represented more than 50 VS2000 participant agencies. The purpose of the meeting was to define the project’s core values and create a common vision. Four core values were identified: victim-centered services, an atmosphere that welcomes diversity, creative collaboration, and passionate well-being (self-care so you can care for others).

  • Use words and pictures of clear, elevating goals so people fully understand them. A few months into the project, VS2000 convened a Visioning Session to define the vision further and begin developing the structure of the model victim service network. Visual exercises were used. In one exercise, participants were asked to draw pictures of what the world or their communities would look like if seamless services were provided for all victims of crime.

  • Be aware of and address changes in participants’ attitudes, perceptions, and level of support and participation. As time passes, participants sometimes become uncomfortable comparing their original ideas with the actual developments. As the Denver VS2000 project matured, conversations and actions naturally shifted from philosophy and visions to the implementation of new initiatives and new ways of delivering services. This made some participants feel their turf was threatened. Others felt that the time and work involved had begun to outweigh any evidence of tangible change. Commitment began to wane and participation on working teams and committees decreased. Two things became clear. VS2000’s core values and mission needed to be revisited, and it was more important than ever for all decisions to be made with input from all participants.

2. Develop a Results-Driven Process

  • Maintain balance between the process and the product. Denver VS2000 continues to be a large, collaborative effort, which involves many agencies that compete for funding and territory. Issues of trust were present from the beginning. Mindful of this, VS2000 staff and meeting facilitators knew it was critical for the participants to have time to express and process these and other issues. This made participants feel that they had a voice and it was heard. Opportunities were provided to participants to engage in trust-building discussions with their colleagues. In the first year, especially, meetings often consisted of processing issues and clarifying positions. This created an atmosphere of mutual trust and collective ownership of the project and its outcomes that was crucial to sustaining a collaborative network of this magnitude.

  • Provide the participants with immediate feedback about the results of the time and effort they spent on the project. Design, and insert into the work, some short-term goals that the participants can achieve. This will keep participants motivated to continue working on the long-term goals. Aware that busy people would continue to attend meetings only if they see tangible results, project staff interspersed challenging, short-term goals that could successfully be completed while working on the longterm goal of creating a model victim service network. Another long-term goal, that of developing a technology system, began with smaller goals of providing participants with e-mail accounts and training them in basic software applications for word processing, spreadsheets, and databases. The larger goal of raising the awareness of service providers to create a truly seamless network of victim services began with the smaller goal of implementing a cross-training plan throughout VS2000. Selecting interns from a minority intern recruitment program was a short-term commitment to the goal of embracing the spirit of diversity.

  • Maintain good communications among all stakeholders involved in the process. A network of good communications is necessary for the success of any collaboration, particularly one as diversified as the Denver VS2000 project. A staff of 5 provided communications support for the approximately 150 individuals who worked in 5 teams on 15 committees and subcommittees. The staff coordinated meetings; maintained a participant database; wrote and disseminated a newsletter; announced meetings, trainings, and other pertinent information; established e-mail accounts for project participants; maintained a meeting calendar; recorded minutes; and uploaded products created by the project onto the VS2000 Web site. Communications were further enhanced by frequently including updates about the progress of other teams, team committees, and committee agendas. In addition, time was allotted for agency updates and networking.

3. Develop the Capabilities of Project Participants

  • Encourage and inspire all team members to participate. All Denver VS2000 participants, both management and staff, were encouraged to join in and share the responsibility for the project. They were encouraged to make decisions about the structure and components of the VS2000 model service network. When it became clear that each person’s opinion was important and actively sought, individuals who may normally remain reserved and quiet in group situations began to take a more active role and display leadership qualities. During times of disagreement, it was helpful to revisit the core vision and values to maintain focus and inspire participants.

  • Recruit diverse and balanced leadership. Ongoing recruitment for leadership of the VS2000 project sought diverse individuals of all levels of skill, knowledge, and experience to reflect the diversity of the field and to provide balance and broad perspective to the project. Believing a diverse and balanced work force would be best for the development of the project, VS2000 required each team on the project to have the same diversity as existed in the field, including age and work experience. Included in the leadership search were direct service providers, such as victim service providers, community members, and allied professionals, as well as policymakers and administrators, such as agency directors and administrative and program staff.

4. Recruit Unified and Committed Stakeholders

  • Commitment needed from all levels of the VS2000 project and agencies. The VS2000 staff believed that multilevel participation by all stakeholders regardless of position would give the project greater and necessary depth and breadth of perspective. For example, the executive directors of Denver’s victim service agencies serve as members of the VS2000 Steering Committee. In addition, many also participate on the project’s working teams and committees and allow or require their staff to participate also.

5. Create a Collaborative Climate

  • Understand the obstacles to using collaboration in victim services. Collaboration is not often seen in victim services because the conditions for successful collaboration rarely exist. Normally, victim services funding is scarce and the competition for it is intense. Victim services work often operates from a model of scarcity, forcing the service provider to function with the anxiety and fear of losing or not finding resources. None of this is conducive to collaboration. VS2000 was possible because the basic needs and resources were met by a grant, allowing the individuals enough relaxation, security, and peace of mind so that ideas could emerge, take root, and grow.

  • Recognize the value of building relationships between criminal justice-based and community-based programs. A tension often exists between community-based and criminal justice-based programs. Rather than acknowledging that the work done by both programs is necessary and complements the other in serving victims, program members argue about each program’s relative value and contribution. The experience of VS2000 indicated that collaboration would not be realized without a solid understanding of roles by both the criminal justice-based and community-based programs and without the establishment of respect and trust between them. VS2000 found that cross training was critical for increasing understanding. Guided discussions were very valuable in helping the participants work through issues of tension and develop the trust necessary for a collaborative environment.

  • Understand that collaboration is a process that requires constant evaluation and adjustment. A collaborative effort is not a destination but a journey. During the project, all VS2000 team members had to constantly assess whether the collaborative effort represented the populations being targeted for better service. As new collaborators joined the effort, it was important and necessary to reassert the agreements and understandings of the collaboration to maintain the original collaborative climate established by the core VS2000 group. As team members reached out to other victim services providers, allied professionals, victims, and underserved communities, it was very important that the original collaborative climate was strong and that all involved had a good understanding of its meaning.

6. Set a Standard of Excellence

  • Set a standard of excellence that provides results that meet the needs of the targeted community. The needs assessment that VS2000 conducted was a necessary first step in defining the project’s standard of excellence. In this assessment, focus groups were most helpful in clearly identifying areas where victim services did not reflect the “no wrong door” vision. Focus groups noted where victims seeking services might run into obstacles.

  • Stress the importance of evaluation. As a profession, victim services often does not evaluate the impact of its services adequately. Those who work in victim services will never know if their work is truly making a difference unless the consumers of their services evaluate them and provide feedback. Since VS2000 projects are guided by the concept of creating and providing victim-centered services, evaluation and feedback from those served is very important for assessing the effectiveness of a VS2000 project.

7. Recruit External Support and Recognition

  • Recognize the importance of diversified support. VS2000 worked hard to cultivate relationships and garner the support of external entities that were interested or willing to help provide services or support for victims of crime. These included allied professionals in local seminaries, law schools, and corporations such as AT&T Wireless. By building the broadest, most integrated victim service network possible, the greatest number of victims can be assisted.

  • Acknowledge the critical roles of funding entities. Ranging from housing staff members to helping ensure the ongoing viability of project initiatives, the support of the Denver VALE board in administering the VS2000 project has been critical. The Denver District Attorney’s Office, which housed the Denver VALE board, was key in making VS2000 a reality. Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter devoted the resources of his office to administrative, housing, and oversight functions for the VS2000 effort, as well as providing his leadership and commitment to the issues of victim rights and services.

  • Understand that internal support is also critical. One’s own organization must provide support and recognition. VS2000 discovered that those who were involved in successful collaborations enjoyed the internal support of their agencies. VS2000 also discovered that collaboration takes time and energy, and receiving only superficial commitment from partner agencies impeded success.

8. VS2000 Leadership Principles

  • Embrace diversity, critique, and conflict as opportunities for growth and understanding. One goal of the VS2000 model is for the collaboration participants to develop trust in the leadership and believe it to be fair, open, and supportive of creative decisionmaking. The VS2000 model believes this will ensure many voices are heard and participants will be encouraged to work hard. In the VS2000 model, the leadership invites criticism as an important step in resolving conflict and moving forward collaboratively. Further, it is important for leadership to embrace criticism and conflict as positive opportunities to achieve mutual understanding. The VS2000 Community Advocates and the Victim Advisory Council are two groups that invited criticism and embraced conflict as an impetus for growth.

  • Consensus building and collaboration. While the consensus model of decisionmaking has been important to the grassroots and feminist philosophies underlying victim services, applying it to collaboration is more challenging. On the plus side, consensus building empowers more people to participate. On the minus side, having increased numbers of participants makes decisionmaking difficult. An organization must take care to implement and manage the consensus-building process wisely.

    Excessive emphasis on the consensusbuilding process can ultimately be unproductive. Skilled management and implementation of the process and capable facilitation of the group are needed to ensure that the group actually reaches decisions and honors them rather than reprocessing them.
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Making Collaboration Work: The Experiences of
Denver Victim Services 2000
December 2002
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