Making decisions AND collaborating

I’ve just been reading Morten Hansen’s Collaboration:  How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results, and thinking about obstacles to collaboration.  Hensen argues pretty convincingly that a bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration at all, and names four key barriers that he’s seen in his extensive work.

But in this case, what’s on my mind is a barrier which he doesn’t directly name, but one I believe he alludes to when he presents the argument that collaboration does not imply, nor call for, centralization of decision-making.  In my experience, one of the reasons people resist collaboration is a misunderstanding regarding the relationship between collaboration and decision-making.

For me, collaboration is co-laboring, working together towards a common goal through a jointly developed structure, usually with some form of shared resources and responsibilities.  Decision-making is, well, the process of making decisions along the co-laboring way.  Two different, albeit connected, processes.

However, at least in some circles (and probably not so much in the corporate settings that have been the focus of Hansen’s work), collaboration seems to have become entwined with ideas of consensus or non-hierarchical participatory decision-making.  And in some ways that makes sense.  Collaboration requires building mutual respect and trust, an ability to compromise, a shared stake in the effort, and good communication. Participatory decision-making generally highly values full participation, mutual understanding, inclusive solutions and shared responsibility … clearly fairly closely aligned with the critical factors related to collaboration I named above (fyi, see Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making for more on those values and the participatory approach).

But collaboration actually requires a great deal more than good relationships and communication between partners and an ability to build mutually beneficial approaches to problems that arise.  In my last post, I talked about the Wilder Collaboration Factors Inventory, a list of the factors that research has shown influence successful collaborations.  And their list of factors is absolutely not limited to the “warm and fuzzy” factors – they name “clear roles and policy guidelines” and “skilled leadership” as critical factors (among others) … both of which could arguably be associated at least as much with hierarchical, leader-focused ways of making decisions as with participatory approaches.  (Not to mention that it is absolutely possible for a strong decision-making leader to nurture respectful relationships, communication, buy-in and effective work handling conflicts.)

If we imagine a group working together collaboratively, their clear roles and guidelines will have to include decision rules to help them make decisions that support the attainment of their mutual goals and vision.  Depending on the cultures of the collaborating individuals and organizations, those decisions could be made by the person-in-charge, a committee or sub-group, or all partners.  And if the decision is made by more than one person, they might use some form of voting, some element of chance or some form of unanimous agreement (consent, consensus) to make the decision.

These decision structures probably exist somewhere along a spectrum of participatory and hierarchical decision-making models; which decision-making rules or models a group uses is a topic for another post, since each has advantages and challenges.  (And if you’re interested in a blend of the participatory and more hierarchical structures, check out sociocracy, which involves consent-based decision-making of circles within a hierarchy (

But regardless of the decision-making approach, the collaboration leading up to the decision point, and/or the collaboration used to implement whatever decision is made, may well be vital, creative and impact-full, helping the group achieve results it could not have imagined from the sum of individual efforts.  And in fact, building in clear expectations regarding how (and when) decisions will be made in the collaboration is part of what will make the collaboration successful.

So by all means, let’s collaborate when it makes sense … and make decisions in ways that make sense for our group, giving ourselves the wide range of options for doing both.

Your experiences, reactions, thoughts?

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Filed under General collaboration, Working with Groups

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