Collaboration: An Endangered Competence?

05/13/2010 12:04 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I cannot remember having experienced or even having read about a time when there have been so many "extremes" co-existing in terms of political points of view and ways of understanding the world. All seem to simultaneously have the quality of being both 'life threatening' AND intractable. Whether we're discussing climate change, social justice, lifestyles, civil rights, the economy, our political process or the price of oil, everyone seems to have a strongly held point of view without much evident interest in learning or working toward some common resolution of our differences. It would seem collaboration is fast becoming extinct--an endangered competence.

Collaboration isn't the same as compromise or negotiation. Collaboration is not about winning an argument or making the strongest case for a particular point of view. Collaboration is grounded in the simple notion that we can't accomplish something alone. To collaborate means to accept and value our differences, rather than attempting to homogenize our thinking into some sort of bland agreement. Collaboration, like coaching, is primarily a process of creative critical thinking and communication in which multiple stakeholders in some 'game' work together toward an outcome that works for everyone--an outcome that is almost always "greater than the sum of the parts."

The ability to collaborate may be one of the most important competencies for leaders in today's increasingly contentious world. Learning to collaborate begins with two very basic commitments. These commitments must exist if there is to be the possibility of a satisfactory outcome.

First, all parties must be willing for there to be an outcome that works for everyone. In other words, we must be more committed to the possibility for a breakthrough with respect to our differences or to a vision that is larger than our personal point of view.

Second, each party must agree that everyone's point of view is valid (not just their own) and that no one has or knows 'the truth'. We are all flying blind. Knowledge is expanding exponentially and most solutions are obsolete before they are implemented. We can no longer trust or defend our forecasts. We must coordinate and appreciate each other's view of the world, but recognize that our assessments are never true or false. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is action.

  • Are we aligned in our commitments?
  • If not, what is missing for us to be aligned?
  • What are we going to do (or not do)?

Ideologies, belief systems and theories are important for the members in a particular club or community. We need to have an intellectual framework to make sense of our world. But when we become captives of our points of view, then we cease to be thinking beings. We no longer have a point of view: our point of view has us.

Collaboration doesn't come naturally, particularly when conflicts and lack of trust have become institutionalized to the point that people often don't even trust their own leaders. Often it is only an external threat or some form of 'hitting bottom' that brings adversaries to the table with a willingness to collaborate in the interest of mutual survival. One choice we always have, however, is where the 'bottom' is.

Here are some questions I've found useful when entering into complex conversations in which multiple stakeholders have different and conflicting agendas:

  1. Why are we here? What is the purpose or desired outcome of this conversation?
  2. What is at stake for each of us?
  3. Are we willing to accept that the other's views are as valid as ours?
  4. Can we 'listen generously' and 'talk straight' without attacking each other?
  5. Is there enough trust to accept and honor each other's commitments (word) if we reach some alignment going forward?
  6. Do we have (or can we get to) some agreements regarding how to resolve breakdowns when they inevitably occur?

There are, of course, many practices that must be mastered to lead a collaborative process. Collaboration requires we give up our attachments to a black and white, either/or worldview and accept the practical fact that being 'right' or 'wrong' is irrelevant if the house is on fire. To collaborate, we must learn to love ambiguity. We must learn to love living in the 'gray zone' where our answers are all interim and our focus is on serving a future that works for everyone.

Consider the speed, power, creativity and generosity of spirit we can muster in a crisis. All of us can function with extraordinary effectiveness under the right conditions. We don't need new books on leadership or new organizational models. In a crisis, we are all present and in action. Differences are noted and quickly resolved. Principles are secondary to what works.

The question is why does it take a crisis to bring out the best in us?

Copyright 2010 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.