Mapping a blueprint framework for effective collaboration

Title graphic for Collaborative Action Toolkit by Keystone and Dow

More businesses are taking collective action on issues that threaten sustainable development. And for good reason: Collaborating can spark innovative thinking, reduce risks and grow positive impact.

In fact, we believe so much in the power of collaborative frameworks to address global challenges that we made it central to our 2025 “Leading the Blueprint” Sustainability Goal. More broadly, our 2025 Sustainability Goals – our third set of 10-year goals – recognize that only through blueprint thinking and successful collaboration with like-minded partners can we accelerate our positive impact. Why?

“Collaboration is a must for transformative change to happen,” says Jihane Ball, lead sustainability director at Dow. “The complex challenges we face today, like creating a circular economy for plastics, combatting climate change and enabling sustainable, reliable water supplies, cannot be done by Dow alone. Many of the best solutions and necessary buy-in for these solutions requires new types of collaborations that may not have been considered before. Partnerships between business, governments and civil society are essential to ensure we meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement targets.”

Yet while collaboration is easy to talk about, it can be difficult to do effectively. To help equip our people with the skills they would need to collaborate externally in an organized, value-added way, we partnered with the Keystone Policy Center to develop a Blueprint Thinking Toolkit. The Keystone Policy Center is a non-profit organization recognized by public, private and civic leaders for independent, collaborative problem-solving approaches.

“Our long-standing partnership with Keystone gave us an opportunity to listen and learn, and their outside-in thinking deepened our understanding of the questions and processes that will help drive actionable and impactful solutions with other stakeholders,” said Carrie Houtman, director of Global Public Policy and Issues Management at Dow.

Originally, the toolkit was tailored to Dow and processes unique to our employees. But Keystone and Dow agreed that the lessons for developing a collaborative mindset could be used by everyone, and a more general Collaborative Action Toolkit was released at the end of 2020. The toolkit is an Excel workbook that is organized into three sections—project alignment, stakeholder mapping and external engagement—and provides numerous productive collaboration tools for each stage. The toolkit also provides examples from Dow’s collaborative blueprints on topics such as sustainable water management and unlocking carbon reductions, which resulted in externally published case studies that enable others to learn from us and do similar work.

“Collaboration is a powerful concept that requires a methodical approach to be most effective,” says Justine Nelson, global leader of Business and Scientific Advocacy. “The toolkit provides a roadmap for anyone to develop a more collaborative mindset and organize their stakeholders and work.”

What are some of the secrets to effective collaboration?

Start with a purposeful mission.

Take time to be clear on what your project strategy is, starting with the challenge you are trying to overcome or the opportunity you are pursuing. This includes a clear scope, constraints and the metrics for success. “This will become your guiding light and help keep the project focused as it progresses,” Nelson explains. “It also will help you promote and defend the collaboration efforts internally.”

Build a case for engagement.

Stakeholder mapping can help clarify the need and purpose for engaging with specific external organizations. An important part of the process is to include those with opposing views in the dialogue. “The point is to really challenge yourself to build multi-stakeholder engagements that bring together diverse viewpoints and maximize your chances to drive significant, sustainable change,” Houtman says.

Focus on mutual benefit.

Any lasting working relationship benefits both parties and starts with honest, two-way communication. When launching a collaborative relationship with an external stakeholder, go beyond the “what” and “when” of a project work plan and also tackle the “how” and “why” by drafting a project charter. “The charter defines a joint focus, direction and expectations,” Nelson says.

Too often, collaboration can seem like just another corporate buzzword. But by taking a more strategic and proactive approach to external collaboration and working with diverse stakeholders, we’ve seen a transformational change in how we’re addressing sustainability – an approach that goes beyond our own fenceline and engages others.“

Blueprint thinking and the toolkit on which it is based have served as a foundation for us to be able to address sustainability across the company,” Ball explains. “While not directly attributed to the toolkit, Dow’s approach to carbon management and plastic waste are fantastic examples of collaborative engagement and internal alignment outlined in the toolkit. By finding common ground to build successful partnerships that will enable society and the environment to thrive, we can co-design the future we all want.”