I’ve been in the collaboration “business” for about 20 years now, working on all levels, from the most internal inner conflicts, to the most ambitious efforts to create at least a model of what local to global collaboration could look like. Up until the last few years, the bulk of my work has been with individuals learning to engage with self and other in ways that have more empathy, compassion, authenticity, and vulnerability. In recent years, I have been focusing more on leadership and on systemic frameworks as well as tools for group collaboration.
I have found that working in the way that I have is like a collaboration gym: exercising our collaboration muscles allows us to regain capacity where we’ve lost it in the centuries since we’ve been torn apart from land and community to create mostly transactional relationships that are based on negotiating self-interest and little more. I have seen people and groups get much better results after applying what they learn about collaboration in workshops and consulting services I have offered.
Something was missing, though, about why, sometimes, even with all the best collaboration tools, individuals or groups don’t get anywhere with their efforts. The beginning clue came to me when I read The Leaderless Revolution by top-UK-diplomat-turned-accidental-anarchist Carne Ross. Ross’s book, which I found remarkable in many respects, got me started thinking about what, ultimately, makes collaboration work. Most especially, how do groups of individuals come into their own power and collectively manage to improve the conditions of their life. For me, it becomes ever more interesting to understand this because I want to learn how, at least locally, we can challenge the larger systems within which we operate.
Something fell into place for me when I read the part about survivors of Hurricane Katrina, many of whom went on to engage in very generative collaborative processes for rebuilding their city. In this description, he named two key conditions that help collaboration work. Specifically, he made the point that the reason these survivors could get these amazing results was that the issue was framed in practical terms rather than ideological ones, and, in addition, the group had the authority to make the decisions and implement them. This was no town hall meeting in which people aired opinions and got nowhere. Something else was going on in this and other examples Ross used: people were managing to work together, directly and effectively, without necessarily acquiring new tools.
That’s when I started wondering about the context within which we aim to collaborate, and about whether there is anything we can do about the structural conditions that has the potential to make collaboration succeed more often than otherwise. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been identifying and investigating such conditions, starting with the two that Ross named. I am using the word “conditions” here in the sense of varying degrees of particular states or qualities, not the sense in which it gets used in legal or disciplinary settings of something that necessarily has to be met in order for something else to happen. I see these conditions on a spectrum, not as something that either exists or doesn’t – the more of each of them we have in place, the easier collaboration is likely to be and the more robust its results.
Here below is the first draft of the list I’ve put together to help me think through how to set things up, before I am even in the room with others, so that we maximize the chances for true collaboration to occur.
Purpose Is Clear and Shared
The clearer and more voluntarily shared is the purpose of collaborating, the more likely it is that the collaboration will succeed. Almost always, this would mean taking the time to make it all explicit, even though the normative culture sees such conversations as a waste of time. Just in the last few weeks, I was coaching a team in a company where this precise issue came up. This team is engaged in cross-team collaboration for just about everything they do. Sure enough, at a certain point one member of the team was pointing a finger at another team about why the processes they work on together are so challenging, and about why members of this team are so often resentful. I was easily able to identify that the two teams didn’t ever pause long enough to make their purpose for collaborating explicit, to agree on it, and to set up their respective roles within the collaboration. The other team, without ever being told, was operating under the false premise that they were all aligned with their perspective about purpose and roles, and thus, naturally and innocently, expected things from the first team that the first team never signed on to do. As soon as I put this in words, I could see the manager of the team visibly relaxing. I could tell she knew what to do next.
A clear purpose is the foundation of any collaboration because it orients those trying to collaborate. They know why they are collaborating, what they are trying to make happen together. Clarity is not enough, though. If the purpose is imposed and not truly shared, it won’t provide sufficient motivation for people to dig into the creative juices that are needed to find pathways and solutions that will help everyone collaborating reach the finish line together.
For any short-term collaboration, purpose, clear and shared, may be enough. If two or more people collaborate over an extended period of time, they will need, in addition, agreements about how they work together. At the very least, agreements about how to make decisions and what to do when they run into conflicts. Again, the clearer and the more shared (rather than imposed) these agreements are, the more likely there will be real collaboration.
Issues Are Framed in Practical Terms
The less ideological and more practical the framing of the issues, the more likely it is that people working on resolving the issues will find a way to converge for everyone’s benefit. This is one of the two fundamental insights I got from Ross. Sadly, in our times in particular, very often issues are framed in ideological rather than practical terms, and, even when more practical, in terms that are either/or in nature. This is particularly disturbing at a time when, collectively as a species, we have major issues to attend to, and we are being polarized more and more, in more and more places, by framing these issues in terms that almost guarantee we can’t solve them.
This is where the story of the town of Frome in England is so clarifying. Frome is governed by local residents who are not affiliated with any party. I spoke with one of the visionaries of this remarkable transition, and he explained it to me in a simple way. When city council members are affiliated with a party, they are ideologically driven, and this limits their capacity to work with each other to solve a problem rather than make a case for a position. The entire platform of the people that now govern Frome was about solving problems and making things work, not about any ideological positions or affiliations. And it’s been going remarkably well for some years now, to the point where Frome has now become a source of inspiration for many other towns around Europe.
Participants Are Directly Impacted and Have a Stake in the Solution
Even if the issue is framed in very practical terms, it might still be incredibly difficult to collaborate effectively and make decisions together if those collaborating are not directly involved. This, now, seems straightforward to me, and I know I didn’t see it before. Simply stated: the more direct the connection, and the more involved the people, the more likely it is that they will find a way forward that works. As the story of Frome illustrates, if we live in a village together, and we are all affected by floods that erode our forest and roads, we can figure out a way to address it even if we are members of opposite parties. Our opinions come up against the reality of the problem, and we simply know that to work things out we will need to look at the reality and at the other stakeholders.
Here’s an example from my own personal life that drove home the point to me that even practical issues will remain deeply contentious if we don’t have a stake. Quite a number of years ago a colleague and I embarked on an ambitious conversation. Knowing we had divergent opinions about the health care system in the US, and knowing we were both deeply immersed in NVC, could we come to agreement or understanding about the topic? We both approached it with one of the core premises that the practice of NVC rests on: that needs are never in conflict, because conflict occurs only at the level of the strategies to meet the needs.
Despite our enthusiasm, despite our mutual trust, despite our willingness, and despite the tools we brought to bear, we failed to get anywhere. It was easy enough to name the needs, and still we couldn’t get anywhere satisfying beyond that. At the time, I was very discouraged. Now, with Ross’ insights in place, I know what happened: our issue wasn’t framed in practical enough terms, we didn’t have a real problem to solve, and we had essentially no stake in the outcome other than our own relationship. Because of that, we remained, for the entire time, glued to our opinions. There’s a reason that we hear so often that opinions are cheap. When there’s no practical problem to solve, and no stake in the outcome, there’s nothing on the line that would motivate us to shift, stretch, open up, listen, learn, and be creative.
For the conversation with my colleague, perhaps instead of speaking as ourselves we might have done better to imagine ourselves being legislators instructed to come up with a new health care system that would be attentive to all needs. This might have brought us sufficiently into real life to be able to solve our issue. And I imagine our health care system would be much improved if it were designed by people directly affected by the decisions, rather than by law-makers whose private health insurance is reported to be much better by any metric than what is available to the vast majority of people.
Participants Have the Authority to Implement Solutions
The final insight that I gleaned from Ross is that people are way more likely to find a way to collaborate when they have the authority to make decisions and implement their solutions. Again, this is for a similar reason. If I know that we are just talking, and nothing will come of it because someone will block what we are doing, then, consciously or unconsciously, I will be less motivated to stretch myself, to find willingness to be flexible, to find openness to hear from others, and to dig into the creative mystery that makes unimaginable solutions emerge.
Here, however, I want to note a major and significant exception which I refer to as “moral authority.” When I worked in Minnesota with a group of people on the topic of child custody legislation, the group had absolutely no formal authority. We had only four legislators in the group, not enough to pass legislation. The group wasn’t commissioned by anyone; it was self-initiated and voluntary. There was no budget and no particular power in the room. Still, the group mobilized for two legislative sessions and worked incredibly hard together to come up, in the end, with a new proposed approach to child custody which eventually went through the legislature with essentially no opposition. Why did that happen? The group, with my support, recognized its own moral authority. Because it contained a wide spectrum of stakeholders and opinions, the authority derived from its very ability to collaborate and converge. As I had predicted, the very fact that this group was able to come up with a proposal they all endorsed was enough to sway almost all legislators. In the end, only three of 186 didn’t vote for the proposed legislation.
The Necessary People Are in the Room
This element is essential for the results to be as useful as possible, not simply for the group to come to agreement. There are three types of people that I find necessary for the outcome of a collaboration to be robust and with staying power. The first group is those affected by the outcome, especially if they are the ones who will implement it. Their absence often leads to less wise outcomes or to rollbacks because of conditions in the field that were not anticipated by those working out the solution. Their absence will almost always lead to less motivated implementation, often to resentment, and sometimes to outright sabotage of the result.
The second group is those who have specific, relevant expertise. I learned about this from Frederic Laloux, through his explanation of the Advice Process in his book Reinventing Organizations (where the first group is also mentioned). It’s easy to see that, without relevant expertise, the outcome is likely to be less viable. And, still, without conscious awareness of this being an important question to ask, the autopilot flow of actions and the perpetual stress we live in may lead us to forget to do so.
The third group of people that are essential to include I learned about from experience and from Dominic Barter: the people who have the capacity to undo the results of the collaboration. For Dominic, it was in the context of Restorative Circles, when he learned that any action plan by people who’ve been part of a conflict can be instantly undone by others who were not invited to the process. In my own experience, one story illustrates this challenge vividly.
Years ago, I was doing consulting work for a small manufacturing company. A certain project required cross-team collaboration. We worked hard to identify and bring together all the people we thought could contribute to the outcome. And we didn’t invite the CEO. On my end, I know the error was based on the belief that he was fully committed to collaboration and to empowering others to make decisions without fear of reprisal. After some deliberation, everyone on the cross-team task force agreed on a plan for how to move forward. Then the CEO nixed it for reasons I no longer remember. The demoralization was palpable, and the group never fully recovered their trust that it made sense to take on making decisions.
As a result of all this, when a certain group in the Minnesota child custody project pulled out, I was very alert to the potential results. This was a group that had the power to veto the outcome because of their lobbying influence. Everyone knew this, and thus we worked very hard to keep them engaged, unsuccessfully. Once this was clear, I took some extra time to meet with them and get to a place of full understanding of their issues and concerns. From then on, I represented them to the rest of the people in the group any time any proposal or action intuitively felt to me to be at odds with what was important to this group. In that way, I sort of kept them in the room even though they were not. In the end, although they didn’t endorse the emerging legislation, they didn’t object to it either, thereby allowing it to pass through the legislature.
Putting It All Together
What if you are part of a group, or facilitating a group, where a problem is already framed in ideological, either/or, you’re with us or you’re against us terms? What if there is no way to have the necessary people in the group?
I come back to what I said earlier: these are not binary pre-conditions. This, too, is an insight I learned both from my experience and from Dominic Barter, who has similarly named a partially overlapping list of conditions for a restorative outcome. In both cases, the conditions are only elements that improve the chances of an outcome. I already shared two exceptions in a project that was entirely successful in the end. One was the recognition that moral authority can work well enough in the absence of formal authority. The other is that there are ways of compensating for the absence of key stakeholders in the room.
If you are part of a group that is aiming to collaborate, or a facilitator of such a collaborative process, you can think of the entire list of elements I have laid out as a way to get clarity on what you may need to compensate for. Even in a fully ideological process that is entirely polarized, where there is no specific stake in the outcome, no authority to make and implement decisions, and no buy-in from most actual stakeholders, some groups have done amazing wonders.
One group of people, divergent in their opinions, were able to come up with a skeletal health care system proposal that they were all aligned with in the course of a training in facilitation they were all taking. Even less practical, there have been many groups that have come together for the sole purpose of dialogue about divergent opinions. I know people who have been to left-right leaders’ gatherings and came back transformed. I know of groups that function for years and build incredible relationships over time on very charged topics such as abortion or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Which brings me back to where I started. I have been working in this field for twenty years, and my faith and confidence have only increased. If I had any doubt at the beginning that we are creatures designed by evolution to collaborate with others to solve problems together and care for our collective needs together, it’s gone. My only remaining doubt is whether we will manage to transform the global conditions that make collaboration next to impossible in so many settings. Until then, I am counting on human ingenuity and creativity, and on the presence of enough of us who are passionately committed to finding ways of making collaboration work, to create more and more islands of alternatives to the harsh demands of our system. Setting up the conditions for collaboration to flourish may be outside our power to make happen. Working with others to rebuild trust and finding ways to transcend obstacles and reach solutions that work for everyone is what we can all strive for, wherever we are
Image Credits: Top: Graphic by Hagit Ben-Eliezer. Second: Photo by Fabiola Fuentes. Third: Photo by Phil Williams on Geograph CC by-SA 2.0.