A Messy Business: Principles for Effective Collaboration

Collaboration is a messy business.  It is time-intensive and can be interpersonally challenging.

It is also the best way that we know to solve the worlds’ complex problems: from vast issues like climate change, health and education, to more concrete issues like how to create a sustainable, regenerative building or a state of the art hospital (or sometimes both!).

Genesis Building Effective CollaborationTerry Taylor and I have been working with Jim Bedrick, an expert in “Integrated Project Delivery“(IDP), a form of construction that builds buildings which have a very different design process.  Instead of using a “Design-Bid-Build” system, where architects, construction managers and subcontractors, and owners are all three separate teams, they use IPD- a system that brings these groups together onto one team, and asks them to collaborate from the ground up.  This is pretty radical in the competitive field of construction – and what they are finding is that it is possible to solve building conundrums more effectively and – here’s the crux – more innovatively – than in the old system where groups were in a competitive stance from day 1.

We have been working together to design a workshop for individuals who would like to develop and hone their skills for collaboration.  Along with tools for dialogue, problem-solving, and facilitation, we have developed a set of principles to help collaborators in any field work more effectively – and innovatively – together.

These principles are timeless, they work regardless of the situation, and without them, collaboration cannot happen effectively.  See if you agree about the following principles, which are rooted in well-known theories of high-performance teamwork (The Wisdom of Teams, Jon Katzenbach), systems thinking (5th Discipline FieldGuide, Peter Senge et al,) and Mutual Learning (The Skilled Facilitator – Roger Schwarz).

  1. Focus on shared purpose: Shared purpose forms both the reason for bringing the group together.  Without shared purpose, the “stakes” of engaging together are not clear – and it is not “worth” the investment of time and energy.
  2. Build respect and trust: Without respect – the acknowledgement of the diversity of opinions and perspective – it is very hard to build trust.  Without trust, the “root problems” may never be addressed, the best ideas may never be shared, and ultimately the relationship that helps ride the waves of interpersonal ups and downs doesn’t get strengthened.
  3. Detach ego from ideas: Ego is an important part of innovation – without some form of confidence and self-concept, new creativity does not get brought to the mix.  However, once ideas ARE offered, it is best to step aside and let them have their own life.  That can be challenging – we naturally are invested in our own ideas.  But that’s how best results in collaboration occurs.
  4. Align self-interest and shared interests:  We define collaboration as the following: “A joining together of people with multiple loyalties to share risks  and combine ideas to obtain benefits greater than any single individual could accomplish.”  Specifically, “people with multiple loyalties” come to the table for different reasons.  By looking for ways to align self-interest and shared interests in the group, you create common ground upon which the collaboration can flourish.
  5. Emphasize equal relationship and status: As in negotiations, significant power differentials in collaboration can create a sense of unequal dependency, vulnerability, and a shoddy foundation for partnership.  Ultimately, this is due to whether all parties feel they will have gain and reciprocity – and whether others are stepping up to the plate.  By emphasizing equal relationship and status, you create an equality of contribution – whether through ideas or other forms – and an equal playing ground.
  6. Disagreement is a positive force, look to harness it: Conflict can make or break collaborations.  It is also a form of powerful energy that can drive clarity and strengthen relationship if used well.  It is also an expected and important part of collaboration.  If we seek to harness conflict in our collaborations, the energy can be transformative, leading us to deeper understanding of each other and solutions that break the mold.  See my recent article on conflict for tools to harness its power.

These principles are a foundation for effective collaboration if used consistently and precisely.  Let us know how you have seen them at work in your own collaborative effort!