A System of Collaboration
- LEVEL ONE - THE INDIVIDUAL “I”
- LEVEL TWO - The Small Group or Project Team “We”
- Level Three - The Whole Organization “Us”
Level One – The Individual
Habits of Thinking & Speaking
Most people have the physical instruments (brain, mouth, ears etc) that allow us to think and to speak (and to hear). But collaborative work requires that the basic skills of thought and speech are employed in a mindful rather than mechanical way.
Collaboration requires that we approach conversations deliberately, mindful of the outcomes we seek and careful with the language we use to express our ideas. It is simply not enough to throw a group of people in a room and hope that they “figure it out”.
As a dear friend of mine used to say … Hope is not a method.
And even good method is not good enough. Technical skills alone may yield a satisfactory result, but they will more likely end in resentful compromise than genuinely collaborative action. Compromise is a long way from the kind of collective enthusiasm, energy and engagement needed to dissolve the most pressing organizational challenges.
Truly successful collaboration requires both mind and method.
Carol Dweck. Mindset (2006), talks about the difference between growth and fixed mindsets and the extraordinary effect this set of beliefs has on the arc of a person’s life. The same is true of Collaboration. There is a particular mindset, or set of beliefs, and a method, or set of skills, that when practiced together leads to collaborative success.
The Collaborative Mindset
… starts with the belief that your own perspectives and ideas (although worthy) will likely be improved through interaction with others in the room. Great collaborators, although they rightly believe in their own capabilities, embrace the fact that their skills are merely parts of the whole picture that can be created. They actively seek the ideas of others as catalysts for improving their own.
Coupled with this belief, individuals must learn and use a particular set of communication tools that allow them to participate skillfully in conversation and dialogue (which are the foundations of collaboration). This collection of skills can be thought of as the collaborative method.
The Collaborative Method
… is part Art and part Science. The Art of Conversation requires that everyone in the room strives for the right balance between advocacy (sharing my views) and inquiry (exploring your views). It balances structure and form with emergence and process; it allows for both reaction and reflection; passion and precision.
Level Two – Small Groups / Teams
Habits of Meeting, Deciding & Resolving
Having built a foundation of individual skills, players must also learn the rules of the game and how to work together with other team members to accomplish their shared goal. In the workplace, just as it is on a sports team, this involves knowledge of the rules of the game as well as its purpose.
In sports, the rules and goals are fairly simple and consistent. Referees make sure that everyone stays within the agreed boundaries of the game. But coordinating all the individual skills for a collective result takes longer and is more complex, because the game is dynamic. You can’t ever be sure where people will be on the field and you can never know exactly what they will do when they get the ball.
Collaboration in organizations is just as dynamic but adding to the complexity is the fact that the rules of the game are rarely as straightforward as scoring goals. Moreover, the rules and goals are often shifting in response to changing conditions in the marketplace. This dynamic complexity makes the game of collaboration interesting, but also unpredictable and sometimes messy.
This messiness is one of the main reasons that managers resist more collaborative engagement. But groups or teams that can navigate this dynamic landscape have a critical competitive advantage. So, in addition to the individual collaborative skills, teams need shared habits that they apply to the basic team functions of meeting, deciding and resolving.
As with individual skills, there is both an art and a science to building the kind of team that is capable of creative thinking and disciplined action. Rather than merely talking with (or talking at) each other, high performing teams develop and use strategies that encourage both divergent and convergent thinking. Facilitators provoke creative disagreement using movement, visual imagery, and other interactive methods to deepen curiosity and soften the voices of fear, cynicism and judgment that interfere with creativity and imaginative problem-solving.
Level Three – The Whole Organization
Habits of Value & Supporting
Many organizations invest thousands of dollars building individual collaborative skills and providing team members with communication courses and team-building retreats only to experience a disappointing resistance to genuine collaborative work and the breakthrough results that are expected or promised.
Why is this?
The reasons are complex, maybe even unique to each organization. But part of the answer lies in the degree to which organizations are willing to confront systemic cultural or structural barriers to cooperation that exert powerful influence over what is really valued and supported in an organization.
Leadership actions also send powerful messages about what the organization really values and what kind of behavior it is truly going to support. In order to realize the benefits of engagement, participation and innovation, organizations must transform entrenched or habitual patterns of behavior that compete with stated collaborative goals.
This is challenging work, but a failure to acknowledge and gently confront these powerful, systemic barriers prevents the organization from realizing the benefits of the investment they have made in collaboration elsewhere in the organization. Or worse! It may even undermine efforts to train skillful individuals and build skillful teams, promoting instead, a culture of cynicism.