The Collaboration Paradox: Some Tactics for Getting Things Right

A proposed book by John Abele – Part 2

What’s critical to any creative collaboration, is that it begins with a goal but no blueprint to follow, because much will be discovered during the process.  Each individual is expected to share any of his or her knowledge, opinions, and discoveries that will help to achieve the group’s common goal. What’s most surprising about the lack of success with these endeavors is that we have an ever-expanding array of tools that can enhance collaboration, such as Wikis, search engines, smart phones, and social networks.  The reasons that collaborations fail, however, involve those crucial soft ingredients—behaviors and mindset.

The most important point is that collaboration is a mindset, not a set of steps.   So, while I can recommend steps, and give examples of how they have worked, people will need to shoot for the mindset and try different approaches depending on the situation.

I like to call this mental attitude the “collaborative state.” Helping groups reach that state depends on the mix of people involved, the work done to prepare for the collaboration, and the characteristics of whoever is leading the effort.

The first feature that will decide whether a collaboration fails or succeeds is the choice of collaborators. Many people want the most prestigious and intelligent people they can find, but in fact, it’s more important to get a diverse mix of people who represent different perspectives, skills, and mindsets. Diversity reduces groupthink and amplifies the variety of input.

Then, to get that group to truly work together, the leader must create a unique environment of openness, trust, candor, risk taking, astute awareness, and of sensitivity to the various personalities involved. There must be a clear set of rules for how to act so that people feel safe about expressing their views.  But the participants shouldn’t feel too safe; in fact, it helps to keep them slightly off balance, even a bit uncomfortable, so that they are open to the unexpected and willing to be unorthodox if that’s what is necessary to get to the answers the group needs. The participants must be engaged from the beginning, and that requires a lot of preparation and “stage setting.”

Most importantly, the leader or moderator must have impresario-like skills, so that he or she can make certain that every voice is heard, that people are comfortable sharing all their ideas, and that the overall process maximizes the likelihood that the very best ideas will get approved— not just those of the most powerful participants. The leader’s most important tasks include managing divas and helping less well-known participants to shine.

Getting to the “collaborative state” takes a lot of planning and work behind the scenes, in clarifying the goals, setting the stage, drawing up the list of participants, grooming them for the process, and then overseeing the collaboration.  Many of the tactics that help create that environment are counter-intuitive.  For example, leaders need to cede control – in order to gain control – another paradox. They must also carefully manage the personalities in the group and set an example to show that everyone will be treated fairly and given a voice, and that creative ideas are welcomed. Group leaders must also work against “the system” to make it clear that in this particular setting bullying, patronizing, and relentless self-promotion are considered counter-productive.  If the right steps are followed, and a group does reach peak collaboration, amazing things can happen.   

We invite you to share with us:

What have your experiences been?  

Are you a collaboration leader? 

Would you like to participate in a collaboration forum?