At a glance:

MSPWin is a funder collaborative that brings workforce development investors together to explore ways to innovate their work. In 2018, as MSPWin prepared to move into its last two years of planned operation, the organization wanted to think bigger. To drive true transformation in workforce development, MSPWin hoped to unite every major player in the field to figure out how they could work together to accomplish system-wide change.

Here’s how we united a network of independent organizations to work collaboratively toward systems change.



Individually, the stakeholders involved in workforce development throughout the Twin Cities wield incredible influence and power to make decisions and lead change. But what the stakeholders didn’t have was a playbook on how to successfully work together. Organizations often stayed in their own lane and weren’t accustomed to collaborating. In 2018, MSPWin sought Imagine Deliver’s expertise to change that. The organization wanted to do what no other group had done before: form a collective group of cross-sector workforce development stakeholders that could work together and reinvent the entire system for greater impact.



In the fall of 2018, Imagine Deliver partnered with MSPWin to host six creative conversations with local leaders moving the workforce development field forward. Participants included: Minnesota Employment Services Consortium, Business Talent Collaborative, Center for Economic Inclusion, Greater Metropolitan Workforce Council leadership and Minnesota Workforce Council Association, leadership from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and Future Services Institute at the Humphrey Institute. The goals of the creative conversations were three-fold: Learn about fellow stakeholders and their interests, imagine the future of the workforce system together and solidify opportunities for stakeholders to collaborate.

Big results start with small actions

Collaboration is about working in partnership with others to accomplish something greater than one leader or organization can do alone. However, that idea can lead to increased pressure on collaboratives to deliver grandiose solutions that revolutionize systems or transform problems on their first attempt to work together. That kind of idealistic vision is not only hard to accomplish, but it can make collaboration feel intimidating to start and difficult to maintain over time. So what’s the fix? Like any new habit, collaboration is best learned and maintained by repeated actions over time. According to researchers at the University of London, it takes people an average of 66 days to form a new habit. To make collaboration the norm rather than the exception for MSPWin partners, Imagine Deliver scheduled six short, 90-minute conversations for the group. These bite-sized sessions consistently reinforced the idea of collaboration and gave MSPWin a framework for practicing it in the future.

Common Ground Builds Trust

Collaboratives form because people care about solving a similar challenge. However, in day-to-day work, individual partners often come at the same problem from different angles. When those perspectives collide in one room, it can cause people to forget the shared mission that brought them together in the first place, and focus on differences instead. Successful collaborations that are productive and action-oriented require partners to develop trust and common ground. Imagine Deliver facilitates that kind of relationship building in two ways.

The first way is through the design of the meeting space. To create an environment that feels calm and comfortable, we host work partners in the same way we host friends who stop by our home. We transform cold or clinical spaces into cozy rooms by filling them with colorful touches, fidget toys and loads of culturally affirming snacks.

“Participants were warmly welcomed into the space, the meeting had a slow start, there were refreshments and tables were set up with things very different than a standard meeting,” says Bryan Lindsley, the former executive director of MSPWin. “This all combined to send the message that it was okay to relax, step back and reflect on the broader
issues of workforce development.”

Beyond the environments Imagine Deliver creates, we also build trust between partners by leading with fun and facilitating activities where leaders are able to get to know each other through play. For example, we kicked off our creative conversations for MSPWin with a 30-minute activity where CEOs and leaders jumped into and out of circles as they shared facts about themselves. After that, we led the group in a series of activities so people got to know what others were working on professionally, and where they were stuck. Shaking up the order in which people got to know each other — by starting with the personal and then moving to the professional — helped leaders see beyond one another’s titles to connect as people rather than as CEOs or powerbrokers. When individuals get the opportunity to learn about each other on a personal level, it builds trust in a way that lets people feel more comfortable about sharing credit and brainstorming new ways to work that are outside of their own daily habits.



Changing a system takes a long time — typically about 10 years. That’s why it’s so important to make sure organizations start by using culturally affirming and creative techniques, because that first step will set the tone for all of the work that comes next. For MSPWin, Imagine Deliver brought workforce development stakeholders together for six creative conversations. Out of that shared time came a critical first step: a harvest document that every major decision maker in the room could agree was a way forward.

“Any consultant can transcribe a session,
but very few can collect, synthesize and analyze
what those comments mean,” says Bryan.

Because of the creative conversations and the synthesis that followed, participants in the conversations agreed that current metrics to measure workforce success are no longer adequate and suggested potential measures they can (and will) explore together for the future. The participants also agreed on the way the group needed to focus its systems change strategy going forward, which players need to be involved for the work to be successful, and the type of jobseeker that change needs to ultimately benefit.