Category Archives: General collaboration

Making the Shift – Mysterious Miracles


I’m intrigued with that hard-to-describe, ever so powerful moment when we decide to act differently than we usually would.  That moment when we break out of our usual routines of thought or action; when we, in a sense, set aside nearly everything that has made us who we are up to that point.  Why do we sometimes choose or allow these shifts, what makes them happen?

For me, that isn’t just a peripheral, mind-games question, but one that has profound impact on my work.  If I’m working with a group on how they approach conflict, talking with a work team about collaborative processes, working with trainers developing workshops, facilitating a group meeting, or designing interactions related to social justice and -isms, all of that work is by necessity predicated on the idea that my intervention may have an impact … that some external stimulus may prompt a change for the people I’m working with.  And because I have the privilege of a fairly high degree of control of my own work and because I tailor each activity to the people I’m working with, I have to think about what may have the most impact for each particular intervention.

I’m no expert on the science of these shifts, but what I’ve noticed, and what seems to be backed up by research, is that lasting change usually comes from both cognitive (thinking) and emotional or subjective processes … being introduced to something new that logically “makes sense” is only part of it.  It seems we’re more likely to change our habitual patterns and behaviors …

  • If people we like or who have influence or power over us adopt the “new” attitude or behavior,
  • If we believe that the “new” attitude or behavior either is intrinsically rewarding (now or in the expected future) or that there would be heavy costs to not changing,
  • If we believe that the “new” attitude or behavior fits in in some way with our values and our image of ourselves.

(See more on motivation in What if … we were motivated to collaborate?.)

So part of what I’m doing when I work with groups is trying to create a setting that both encourages, challenges and supports participants to consider how new ideas fit for them.  How would what I offer change their perceived rewards or costs, how does it work with their existing beliefs and patterns, how does it fit with what others around them might say or do?

Figuring out whether what I do may have the impact I intend isn’t a mathematical equation whose answer I can predict.  What motivates one person or organization to change won’t be the same as what works for another, and I can’t be an expert on whether or how what I have to offer may fit for someone else.  There has to be a certain kind of humility in this work.  To try to force a shift to happen, to manipulate people into un-chosen change, or to insist that the miracle take the form and timing I think it should is hubris – and disrespectful.

Which is why I feel such awe when I’m able to witness a moment where one of these shifts takes place.  There is in that moment a mysterious miracle, a moment when the balance shifts – perhaps in part inspired by something I did (or didn’t do), but most certainly born from some internally created and nurtured seed that has burst into bloom.  A moment when all that had been stacked up against change suddenly tilts, an opening appears, and consciously realized or not, our motivational equations add up differently.  Marvelous, isn’t it?

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Filed under General collaboration, Social Change, Training and Learning

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

Collaboration standards

I just can’t ignore the synchronicity when the same topic pops up in different settings, all around the same time.  We met with an organization recently about supporting them in developing a planning retreat, and our wide-ranging discussion touched on standards of excellence.  Not too long after that, I was talking with a local leader that works with nonprofit organizations and small businesses, and he also mentioned the subject.  And it turns out there are some great resources out there for evaluating how we as organizations or individuals are doing, and aiming high in our performance and service (see Independent Sector’s list of standards for a great start).

But around the same time I also re-acquainted myself with another resource that’s particularly relevant to standards of excellence and our work building collaborations.  The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation has an inventory, available free on-line, that uses published research to identify twenty key factors for successful collaboration.  Their list of factors is particularly geared towards community-oriented collaborations, but I believe it could easily be adapted for business projects or teams operating in just about any setting.  You can check out the full list of factors on their website, but today I particularly wanted to highlight three of their factors for successful collaboration:

DSCF1661abc1) Concrete and attainable goals and objectives – Identifying why we collaborate and what we hope will be achieved through that collaboration sounds obvious, but can we get very specific and very realistic about how we will know if our vision and purpose have been successfully carried out?  Especially when funding is tight (and when is it not?) and there are such frequent calls for evaluation and research-driven solutions, we need to be able to clearly state what makes our work together so important, and how we’ll know that it’s leading to the results we seek.  Can you plot an achievable path between where you are now and your measure of success, so that tomorrow and next week and next month you know where you need to be, and so that when you do evaluate you’ll be able to clearly demonstrate concrete steps that taken together meet your goals?  Collaboration is about results, not just how many meetings or how frequent the communication or how many stakeholders you bring together – it’s a waste of everyone’s precious time and efforts to not develop a clear sense of where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.

dreamstimefree_2477992) Collaboration perceived as being in each participant’s self-interest – Perhaps that sounds like it’s feeding into an overly individualistic and self-centered approach, but I am convinced from the work I’ve done developing collaborations that without participants’ commitment and genuine belief that participating in the collaboration makes each member better off than they would be by themselves, the collaboration will be lackluster at best.  Just thinking that collaboration is generally a good idea, or that we “ought to” participate in a collaborative group (for status, because our bosses say we have to, or because other good people are doing it) isn’t enough to inspire us to really take action, or to get over the resistance to adding one more meeting or “to-do” item to our busy schedules.  We have to care to collaborate, and care not just about the outcome, but also the process and the other people involved (more of the Wilder factors) … and that caring has to come at least partly from having our own needs met through the collaboration.

dreamstimefree_54273) Multiple layers of participation – “Everyone” in your office, organization or community is affected by this collaboration, broad participation by a cross-section of stakeholders is important, and direct democracy is good … so let’s just open this collaboration up to anyone who want to come to our meetings, hmm? Well, maybe, but then again, often maybe not.  Very large group meetings can be difficult to facilitate, and challenging for participants as well, particularly if there isn’t a shared vision for the project.  Adults often work better in small groups, where there’s space to hear of the unique knowledge and experiences that each person brings to the table (and time for introverts like me to think through what I want to contribute before I start speaking).  And while the initial enthusiasm for a particular project may be high, a successful collaboration requires that over the longer term the individuals involved develop relationships and trust with each other … another thing that’s tough to do in a very large group setting.

But this factor isn’t in conflict with the desire to have all key stakeholders involved … it just speaks to how we do that.  Maybe the primary vehicle for your collaboration is a monthly meeting with empowered representatives from key groups to disseminate information, gather feedback for the collaborative to consider, and make decisions that move you towards your collaborative goals.  But your group may also conduct an online survey to gather all stakeholders’ input once a year, hold a couple community events during the year, check in periodically with key leaders who don’t have time to participate in regular meetings or events, and work intensely with certain community partners on one aspect of the collaboration.  By creating multiple layers and means for collaboration, we honor what each contributor has to offer and still keep our collaborations focused and streamlined enough to function effectively.

So how excellent is your collaboration, and how have you worked with these or other factors? And what experiences have you had with using standards of excellence?  Would love to hear from you …

PS – One quick note here.  It’s that time of year when resolutions, perfectionism and dashed expectations, and all-or-nothing improvement campaigns can appear at your collaboration party. Another of the Wilder collaborative factors is about working at the appropriate pace for your group … as you work with these or other standards of excellence, celebrate the excellence you’ve achieved, pick one or two places you’d like to seriously (but playfully) work on over the next six months, and be kind to yourselves along the way. Cheers!


Filed under General collaboration, Working with Groups