Collaboration. Maybe you are one of the lucky few who, when you hear the word “collaboration,” flushes with pleasant memories of intellectual give and take, flashes of insight, spontaneous song, and creative sparks dancing, zipping and zinging from cranium to cranium (nearly visible to the naked collaborative eye) until they combine and explode into a starburst of instant beauty and lasting value.
But probably you’re not.
More likely you fall somewhere among the greater majority of folks out there for whom the word “collaboration” is a source of mild to intense disquiet. Possibly you are reminded of all those group projects in school where someone inevitably didn’t do their work, and the very suggestion today that you will have to “collaborate” starts a chain reaction in your psyche that results in free-floating, preemptive resentments, to be directed at the person or persons in the group who clearly won’t have pulled their weight when all is said and done. Or, and this is perhaps the most likely reaction, the word puts you in the mind of seemingly interminable and startlingly inefficient meetings, of spending precious time going round and round with other people, butting heads, being misunderstood and misinterpreted, and misunderstanding and misinterpreting. Your gut tells you that collaboration is a messy business, and you know from experience that when you are in the sticky, thumpy, baffling, maddening middle of it, and people are getting exercised, maybe even upset or angry, it often feels like it’s simply not going to work.
Why is that? Why is it that this very effective mode of getting things done, one of the watchwords of the current business environment, often feels so…perilous?
There are many reasons, but for right now I want to talk about three: People, Practice, and Passion.
Collaboration, by its very nature, must be done with others. Doing it successfully requires a great deal of interpersonal awareness, if not skill, and a capacity for getting in close and working and playing well with others. The stakes can feel high. As Twyla Tharp says in her book, The Collaboration Habit, “People are people. And people are problems. But—and this is a very big but—people who are practiced in collaboration will do better than those who insist on their individuality.”
Intentional or “applied” collaboration isn’t easy. We’re not trained to do it in school, where individual achievement is still the greater goal. And very few people are naturals. Again Ms. Tharp, “Collaborators aren’t born, they’re made. Or, to be more precise, built, a day at a time, through practice, through attention, through discipline, through passion and commitment—and, most of all, through habit.”
Collaboration—at its best—involves commitment, vision, and passion. And passion is a tricky thing. I can’t site any studies, but in my experience, when someone uses “passion” to describe events or people in the workplace, it’s often a euphemism for borderline office behavior, as in, “Boy, Blaise sure was ‘passionate’ about how much the new expense reimbursement policy sucks.”
But true passion is a necessary ingredient for good collaboration that gets great results. Passion drives people to advocate for themselves and their ideas. (And let’s face it, great ideas are rarely so great that their greatness is self evident. They need somebody to stand up for them, especially when they are young.)
All of this leads me to a basic principle of applied collaboration that is counterintuitive and may be the source of much of the disquiet I referred earlier: Effective collaboration is not about compromise.
This may not seem obvious at first. In fact, the very word “collaboration” is closely associated in many people’s minds with the words “cooperation” and “compromise.” And it seems almost a truism that when you bring a bunch of civilized adults together to work on a challenge, they will have to cooperate and they will have to compromise. Usually, you can’t give everybody everything they want. But in the case of applied collaboration, it’s the mix that matters.
A few years ago, Kenneth Crow of DRM Associates published a model that illustrates this point nicely.
As Crow points out, “Collaboration requires effective team work. Team members must trust and respect one another. There must be open communication and a willingness to accept input from others. …There are often conflicting goals …. Therefore decision-making must be based on a collaborative approach.”
The two axes of Crow’s model are cooperativeness and assertiveness. As he interprets the model, “A low degree of assertiveness and cooperativeness represents avoidance of an issue or the approach of ‘I don’t care.’ A high degree of cooperativeness and a low degree of assertion represents accommodation or the approach of ‘You win, I lose.’ A high degree of assertiveness and a low degree of cooperativeness represent competition or the approach of ‘I win, you lose.’
“Many people believe compromise is the ideal. Compromise represents a moderate degree of both assertiveness and cooperativeness. It represents the approach of ‘Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose.’ This, however, is not the ideal. A good [collaboration] includes people that have strong beliefs and are professionally committed. … The key to the ‘win-win’ approach is to creatively search for solutions that can mutually satisfy the needs of the team ….” (Kenneth Crow, DRM Associates)
In applied collaboration, it is practice that helps you negotiate people’s passions so that you don’t have to compromise.
(Coming in part II, how applied collaboration permits passion and doesn’t require compromise.)