Tag Archives: collaboration

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 (www.sociocracy.info).)

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

Collabolution 2

So this time “collabolution” is about collaboration and evolution.  No, not the Darwinian kind, but an evolution of the way we think about collaboration itself.  And I’m spurred on by a quote from Nilofer Merchant, who talks about collaboration as “co-laboring,” saying “it’s not about hugs … but about how you solve tough problems that neither party could solve on their own.” (pulled from entrepreneur.com website – see also her recent post on the “dangers” of collaboration.)

I love that this directly addresses the perception that collaboration is “nice” or “touchy-feely” or some idealized, Pollyanna-ish state.  Because it’s not.  Collaboration is hard work, starting from the absolutely critical and extremely challenging decision to really undertake a collaborative process, where you listen (and care) about what the other party needs or wants, they do the same, and then you do a lot of painstaking work to identify issues, do some brainstorming and problem-solving, evaluate your options, and choose a course of action that works for both of you (and implement it, evaluate what happens, and sometimes, start the whole process over again.)

It takes courage, self-awareness, self-expression, patience, an open and flexible mind (and heart), and a willingness to be creative, to think outside our normal constraints. I disagree with some writers who think it requires admitting weakness (“I have to collaborate, because I have failed to solve this on my own.”)  But I do agree that it requires the strength to admit that no one of us has all the answers, and the trust to submit to the messiness of having the group run the show (instead of my own orderly, secure self).

So collaboration isn’t easy, and it is work.  And, most of the time, it’s worth the work for the benefits that you receive.

But collaboration is not our default approach, and our other, more ingrained modes for dealing with conflict are hard to shake.  What are those approaches?  Well, the Thomas-Kilman model outlines five different orientations for handling conflict:  competition, accommodation, avoidance, compromise and collaboration.   The first three are our cultural defaults.  Most of us can think of countless examples of a bully (maybe with our name on the back of the sweatshirt?!) who keeps pushing until they win or get their way (competition), or situations when we acceded to someone else’s demands without advocating for ourselves (or pushed someone else into that situation), or circumstances when we simply avoided dealing with a conflict all together.

Sometimes, at least in the short term, those strategies work.  But almost more importantly than whether they work or don’t (and they often don’t), those strategies are ingrained into our institutions – our so-called justice and legal systems, our sports, our religions, our electoral system, our schools, and so on.  We breathe these options in every day, through the media, through our entertainment, through many of the social interactions that we have.  No wonder that these win/lose and avoidance approaches are our fall-backs, our defaults when it come to conflict.

And no wonder that the other two approaches get such a bad name or at least create such feelings of ambivalence.  We’re not used to either compromising or collaborating in much of our daily personal or business or social lives, and we fear that by compromising, we’re sure to lose out (check out “Weak” Collaboration).  For many of us, compromise and collaboration are last-ditch efforts we try when we’re losing, and the relationship or situation is already pretty bad and disintegrating; and in such settings, is it any wonder that working out a win-win sometimes “doesn’t work,” thereby reinforcing the doubts and ambivalence?

We hear examples of these attitudes in our language every day.  People talk about negotiation of their divorce or child-rearing agreements, and they’ll resignedly admit that they had to compromise and say that of course nobody was really happy in the end.  Or activists or business people will say that they won’t settle for a partial win, certainly wouldn’t be caught dead in discussions with the enemy or person who disagrees with them.   Or, in what passes for political discussion these days, we ask how willing candidates will be to compromise or work across the aisle, and then in the next sentence we want to know how our candidate will make sure we win … even though it’s impossible to simultaneously compete and work collaboratively.

So what would it take to change this perception about collaboration?  I believe that most changes in behavior or outcomes have to begin with a change in attitude; you can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.  Which is why I think that what has to happen at this point is an evolution, a setting aside of an outmoded attitude towards “co-laboring” with others.

In some parts of American culture, if we were to say that something were focused, results-oriented, sustainable, effective, and a result of hard work (which we tend to think is good, at least until we have to do it), it would be a good thing.  That’s collaboration – focused, results-oriented, sustainable, effective, a result of hard work … a helpful, practical tool that shouldn’t be relegated like an after-thought to the second or third tier of our toolbox.  What if that’s what came to mind as we thought about collaboration?

Take it a step further, step outside our cultural predisposition towards winning, losing or avoiding for a moment and imagine this:  What if, in a given situation, we really were better off by talking with the other party than not? What if a cold-eyed look at our bottom line said that we got more of our needs met, both in the short- and long-term, by going beyond win/lose? And what if we might even get more than what we initially imagined by working together, that the whole might indeed be greater than the sum of the parts?  Even the most hard-nosed, rational person couldn’t disagree that in those scenarios compromise and collaboration are worth it.  And for those of who believe that relationships are critical to our happiness and success in this world, the benefits are even greater.

Sometimes attitudes can take a while to shift, but they won’t budge if we don’t bring some new life into how we look at a situation.  So take some time in the next few days to notice how you see our default approaches to conflict playing out, to notice when you’re opting to avoid or win (or lose) a conflict.  Maybe offer a challenge when someone speaks derisively about collaboration, give an example of when working together with someone brought you a concrete outcome that was better than you could have done on your own.

Here’s to a new form for collaboration!

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Filed under Collabolution, Conflict, Intercultural

“Weak” collaboration?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve seen notices and advertisements for four or five different groups sponsoring events meant to bridge the political divide, to help us get past the polarized talking at each other or so-called debate that has come to dominate our political scene.  (For example, check out On Being’s Civil Conversations Project, based on the important work of Public Conversations Project.)

Healing and hopeful initiatives, these.  Perhaps they will begin to alleviate the despair and sense of powerlessness and disconnection I and others sometimes feel about bringing collaborative approaches to the traditional political arena.  But, my despairing self wonders, “what good is it if the folks who REALLY need this aren’t listening and won’t collaborate?”

I get a related question fairly frequently when I do communication and conflict resolution training – a participant asks, “if I get this “win/win” concept, that’s all well and good, but if the other person doesn’t, how can it work?”  And the question came up in one of my first exposures to the study of conflict.  It was through game theory, looking at the statistical probability that two parties in a conflict will choose to advance their mutual, vs. their individual, best interests … which can lead to the question, won’t my willingness to collaborate cost me all that I hold important?

So that’s it – we fear that moves to collaboration will be seen as weakness, and that moving towards collaboration may make it less likely that our basic needs will be met.

So what makes collaboration worth it, why should we be fostering collaboration in our civic and political life?  Here are a few of my answers:

1) The alternative (competition, aggression, one party wins and the other loses) doesn’t work.  Just look at the current Washington gridlock for a great example.

2) Non-collaboration is inherently unstable and wasteful – there’s always a “loser” who increasingly has little to nothing to lose and every interest in upsetting the current order.  Stability in and of itself may not be an end goal, but if all of our efforts are geared towards either defending or upsetting the current structure, we just can’t be focusing our best attention and resources on creating the kind of world we want to live in.

3) Our world is too complex and interconnected for simplistic “I or my party wins” approaches – with serious and challenging issues like climate change, sustainability, inclusion, violence and war, and (you fill in the blank), we need all hands on deck to contribute their creativity, ideas and most importantly, actions towards solutions.  Whatever solutions (or non-solutions), we ALL will feel the effects.

4) Non-collaboration maintains and creates injustice.  As long as we act as though those with more power will have more of their needs met, as long as bullies and plutocrats get their way, we are all at risk.  And if we put on our blinders and think, oh at least it’s not me, we’re only fooling ourselves – we’re next in line. (Martin Niemoller: “First they came for the ____ and I didn’t speak out, then they came for ____ and I didn’t speak out … and then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”)

5) It’s a myth that collaboration means “I get less than what I want.”  More on this in another post, but collaboration means that I express fully what my needs and preferred strategies are for getting those needs met.  You do the same (and I listen carefully, deeply), and we together come up solutions that meet both needs. As a strategy, collaboration is more likely than non-collaboration to help me get my needs met.

6) And more personally, if I live based on my fear, I’m not really living.  That is, if the “other guy” doesn’t want to act like I want her or him to act, should that dictate my approach or actions?  And besides, do I believe myself so powerless that it would be impossible for my collaborative approach to change the situation or the other person’s approach?  Maybe my taking that first collaboration step won’t result in my ideal strategy or outcome … but maybe it will, and even if it doesn’t in the short term, just being as collaborative as I’m able creates the kind of world I want to live in.  And in my experience I’m much more likely to feel good about getting my needs met by acting in a way that affirms everyone’s needs.

Anything you’d add?

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Filed under Conflict, Social Change

Caring, class culture and needs

Great book by Betsy Leondar-Wright

I had nearly completed my last entry about groups that care … and I stopped short.  The bump in the road?  I was “geeking out”, as a friend of mine calls it, delving back into anti-classism resources for a project I’m working on, and came across this web page on class cultures (I really admire the work of Betsy Leondar-Wright, and recommend her book, Class Matters:  Cross-Class Alliances for Middle-Class Activists).

I’m familiar with Barbara Jentsen and Jack Metzgar’s chart comparing professional middle class and working class cultures, but as I was re-reading that chart, I flashed to my draft post and how hopelessly “middle-class” it seemed, focusing as it does on individual satisfaction and downplaying the importance of having any job, any income for food, housing, medical care and other necessities in this tough economic climate.

Which brought me to an old debate about hierarchies of needs, and whether it’s legitimate to focus on these “higher” needs of individuation, meaning, etc. when “basic” needs have not been met.  I’d like to believe that we all need to have all our key needs met, and that regardless of which class culture we find ourselves in, calls that everyone’s needs be met are legitimate or valuable.  And yet I couldn’t help thinking of people I know who have been out of work for two, three years now, and how concerns about care in our work environments would have to be considered a luxury, at best something only to be addressed once you have a job or income in the first place.

So what’s my responsibility here?  I can only authentically tell my story, can’t pretend to completely understand what it might be like to be out of work, facing basic survival needs.  I can’t dismiss, ignore, or downplay the importance of class in determining the focus of anyone’s attention, or the role of class, and discrimination based on class, in creating the circumstances that I and others find ourselves in currently.  And, to be an ally, I must continue to increase my own awareness of class’ impact on our world and my own work, and I must work to ensure that other voices are heard.  I’ll keep focusing on my class-related awareness with my project, and ask a couple working-class friends to bring us their views on this question of caring.  Wish me luck, stay tuned.

And a final note on why I share all this?  I believe that building awareness is a continuous, ongoing process, and any time we become complacent, we risk either hitting this type of bump in the road or losing track of key issues.  Collaboration requires that we recognize and value each others’ stories and strengths and challenges, and this is is my small collaborative step for today.

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Filed under Activism, Intercultural, Social justice, Working with Groups

Collaboration: knowledge sharing

So there you are, five hours into work on that new project, only to find out that your colleague already did that same work or had information you spent a lot of time trying to collect.  Or maybe you were talking with someone about your organization’s or business’ less than satisfactory outcome to a tough problem, only to find out that this person had another piece of the picture or a different approach to the question that you’d never considered … and this person was none to pleased that you never asked them for their input in the first place!

Sound familiar?  It’s pretty common in our individualistic, competitive, put-out-the-most-recent-fire world that information critical to achieving our collective objectives isn’t shared … despite lengthy and unproductive meetings, or talk of more and better communication.  It’s ironic that as individuals we’re so thirsty to be heard, to have someone value the information or contribution we have to make.  And yet, in our organizations we seem to expect that individuals should already know what’s needed, and, if they have to ask (god forbid), they should ask targeted questions of the “expert” to get at the minimum they think they need to respond to the problem of the moment.  (And don’t you dare suggest another meeting!)

Call me an idealist, but imagine for a moment that the people you worked with recognized that you and they all had an important piece of a dynamic puzzle, and that continuous sharing of useful information with each other was fundamental to achieving your group’s objectives, improving products or services, and increasing employees’ or members’ sense of buy-in and empowerment.  Mmm …

Curiosity & play

So, what would it take?  I’m not an expert on action research, knowledge management or collaborative learning, but I think we have a lot to learn from all these fields to improve the knowledge sharing in our organizations.  And, just to get you started, here are a few of the ideas I’ve successfully worked with:

1) Bring in more voices – For example, at your next meeting include a supportive (open, not dismissive or “going through the motions”) go-round with input from every single person in the room about a challenging question.  Or ask stakeholders who haven’t previously been involved to come up with three criteria for what would successfully address the question, or at least ten possible (even if crazy) brainstorm ideas related to the issue.  Or try a mind map to identify related approaches or concepts that might inform the discussion.

2) Recognize and appreciate learning – Create specific times and spaces for sharing information (for example, include it in job descriptions, schedule specific time or resources available to support learning or knowledge sharing, do lessons-learned exercises, start a listserv, blog or lunchtime discussion group, etc.) and value the learning that is shared (express appreciation for learning and sharing efforts, identify the concrete effects of that knowledge and possible next steps, create rewards, etc.).

3) Be purposeful – Learning is great, no matter what, but with limited time and resources, you can collaborate more effectively by identifying the particular questions or issues that you want to learn more about, and the specific benefits you hope to achieve from that learning .. and then evaluate how you’re doing and consider what will give you a better chance of meeting your goals.

4) Recognize and leave space for resistance – Ours is a culture which values “experts”, and valuing everyone’s knowledge and input can feel like a threat to an “expert’s” status quo, a challenge to those unused to speaking up, and an inefficient way of doing business (“we already tried that”, “everyone knows that doesn’t work because …”, etc.).  So acknowledge the resistance, leave time and space for individual reactions, and patiently focus on creating environments where we learn from expertise, and still leave space for new ideas or approaches that may indeed better fit the current context than the old tried-and-true “truth.”

Collaboration requires this collective learning.  And in that spirit of collaboration, how would you add to this list of ways to strengthen knowledge sharing in your organization or business?

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Filed under Training and Learning, Working with Groups

Cultural fluency … beyond international business

From a quick look around the internet, you might think that cultural fluency was a tool wielded largely by international business folks.  I wouldn’t disagree that business success depends in part on cultural fluency, but I am disappointed that cultural fluency might be seen as limited to the business world and a few other realms like human resources offices and diversity organizations.  (Not to mention that “cultural fluency” might be (mis)-interpreted as simply knowing whether to shake hands, make eye contact, be more fluid with time or more respectful of the “big boss” … but that’s another story.)

My angry faceLet’s look at a non-business example —  awhile back, I got pretty angry during a meeting to plan some upcoming events.  First knee-jerk reaction, I blamed “them” for being disorganized and difficult.  Next came blaming myself, wondering what I should be doing better.  And then (and when I’m lucky, this transition is quick!), I move out of the blame realm altogether and can get curious about what’s happening.

On the one hand, this meeting’s participants were individuals, with unique combinations of traits and behaviors and attitudes based on all the individual experiences they’d each personally had.  But thinking about this unsatisfactory meeting with that individual “personality” lens can leave me feeling discouraged … they’re just difficult people, we have a personality clash, it’s just the way that individual is (or was born) … nothing to be done, just grit your teeth and move on.

Lens, curiosityBut what if I considered one of those individuals from the lens of the groups they belong to, their social identities, their cultures?  Let’s imagine that one of the  (fictional) participants was female, about twenty years older than me, an experienced “expert” on the topic at hand, a freelancer, and has spent considerable time living outside of her home country.  Each of those groups (females, people of a certain age, experts in this field, freelancers, expats, etc.) has its own culture, which would give a very particular spin to how this person approached the meeting I was in.

And it might be that given the type of meeting we were in, her freelance culture was near the top of the list of possible influences she might have felt.  And what if I imagine that  her freelancer lens made her value networking in this particular setting?

(This is all supposition, mind you …  without asking, I would have no idea which of the many, many identities and cultural labels I might have been tempted to assign to the people involved would have been ones they embraced at least partially, or ones they thought were prominent that day during the meeting  … and which ones were offensive or completely out to lunch!  But I am certain that whichever cultures were in the room that day, they affected how we conducted our meeting.)

So how does focusing on cultures affect my attitude toward the situation?  For me, one of the first things that happens is that it depersonalizes the situation … oh, this is about culture, a culture is not right or wrong, we’re just each seeing a different part of the elephant (know that story?).

Then I can say, OK, so from her freelancer lens, those troubling detours about connecting with other groups make sense.   We can come up with some ideas about how we might approach getting her networking needs met … and then do the same for me (my technocrat self seeing a long agenda and not much time for the meeting was valuing efficiency and clarity of focus – so how might my needs be met?).

I could have extended curiosity and creativity to this person as an individual, but I might miss out on a piece of who she is (we are at least in part who we associate with, no?) and I personally sometimes need the shift in focus to get past the “difficult personality” obstacle.  And to the degree I have any information about a particular culture, a cultural fluency lens helps me anticipate what attitudes, needs or approaches I’m dealing with.  Even if I’m wrong in my reflections, going through this thinking makes me curious, more open to understanding what is going on for others and for myself.

Group, culture of duckiesIf we think of culture as the shared understandings of a group that shapes who we think we are and how we interpret what happens, then all of us are interacting with lots of different cultures every single day, in every setting.  There’s the culture of our book or social club, the supermarket or church, our work or volunteer place, our family, our socio-economic class, our gender … and the list goes on and on and on, far beyond nationality, ethnicity or color of ducky.

I recently gave a workshop on culture, conflict and identity, inspired in part by Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences by Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay, and co-authored by Tatsushi Arai, a professor of mine from SIT Graduate Institute.  Their inspiring and practical model of developing “cultural fluency” (greatly simplified, and as I understand it) involves:

  1. Building knowledge and understanding of other cultures,
  2. Recognizing the embedded meanings in our own cultures (and the impact those meanings have),
  3. Learning to express (and assist others in expressing) underlying cultural influences, and then
  4. Negotiating and acting effectively in cross-cultural situations.

I love that this book was written by a culturally diverse team, and that part of the book is grounded in their own experience of learning to work well together.  Just as they had to go through these cultural fluency steps to successfully publish a great book, I could probably improve my next meeting with my group by learning more about, and articulating the impact of, my and other participants’ cultures in relation to the meeting’s agenda topics.

Will I use my cultural fluency all the time with everyone I meet? Of course not.  And yet developing cultural fluency skills is critical to effective collaboration in whatever the setting, and practice helps, no matter whether it’s at a neighborhood gathering, talk with a partner, political meeting … or even in a business negotiation.

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Filed under Conflict, Working with Groups

Collabolution takes off!

And just what is “collabolution”?  As you’ve no doubt guessed, collaboration is certainly part of it.  And for today, with this new-ish year in mind, we’re thinking about collaboration and resolutions.  Many of us start off the year (or at least think we should do so) with resolutions, intentions, goals or plans, and now, six weeks into the year, find ourselves slipping, diverting, or wildly careening away from what we had hoped to be doing.

Normal, right?  But discouraging – there were some pretty important needs or desires behind those resolutions, and we hate to see our dreams dissipate or get so tattered, so very quickly.

Which is where collaboration comes in.  Yes, I mean the obvious “tell someone what you intend or resolve to do” – that way, we may feel accountable to others for doing what we say, other people can support us emotionally or practically, and for some of us, just the process of articulating our resolve out loud to at least one other person gives it more value and power.

But collaboration can have a deeper meaning.  When I tell you or others about my resolution, say to publish this blog on a regular basis, exploring how collaboration works in our lives, I’m speaking out based on my hope to contribute to a world in which deep and creative collaboration makes all of our lives better.  I want more of us to be collaborating more frequently and effectively.

Sharing the beliefs or values behind my resolution, and hearing about what motivates your intentions, I believe we may find that we have underlying needs in common.  And in connecting with you around those underlying needs, I’m likely to find more profound support, inspiration and determination to pursue my own original intention.  Talking and working together with our resolutions, we may come up with even more brilliant and enchanting strategies to get our mutual needs met.  Now wouldn’t that be a collabolution?

Any thoughts on how our resolution around this blog might support something you’re working on?  We’d love your input and comments below.

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