Lessons of Collaboration Gone Bad

February 3, 2011 Leave a comment


“It’s hard to make a difference when everyone is tangled up in the rigging of procedural formality and blanketed in fog.”

-Roberta’s Rules of Order

With all of the snow days we’ve had so far in 2011, you’ll understand if I begin this post from a “when things don’t go according to plan” mindset. We’ve all taken our lumps in doing collaborative work, even with the best laid plans and best intentions in place. I’ve had the opportunity to do a little reflecting (in between tours of duty shoveling) on what has made for more successful and less successful collaborative endeavors, and here are some of the important lessons I’ve learned when things have not gone as well as had been hoped for:

  • It is vitally important that people not hide behind their roles, titles, and organizational affiliations. These may be an entry point into conversation, but as a participant in one project said, “Unless we’re open to being changed and showing more of a range of ourselves, we aren’t going anywhere.”  Indeed.
  • We’ve got to get out of our heads. This does not mean leaving them behind, but rather striking a balance with our hearts.  This is for the sake of better connecting with one another (relationships really matter), accessing collective intelligence, and getting into a better space for looking at complex problems and possibility creation.
  • The convenor(s) have to  strike a balance between exercising their power to bring people together and not inappropriately driving the agenda. Convenors can have a vital role to play in helping to set the agenda and articulate constraints that can be helpful for a given process, but when this tips over into driving too hard, it can become particularly discouraging, as can not clearly articulating up front where one stands.
  • Paying attention to and honoring the differences between content and process is critical. When the boundaries blur, this can become particularly damaging, especially when it privileges those who are perceived as being “in the know,” the so-called “content experts.”  The fact is that most complex problems are adaptive in nature.  They do not lend themselves purely to technical fixes, to having the “smartest” people in the room make the best argument.  If we don’t consistently hold up and address the process challenges (Does everyone have the same information?  Does everyone agree and why or why not?  Is this the right process?  Do we have the right people in the room?) and related roles, then often we descend into trying to outsmart one another instead of having the conversations that address the real underlying issues.
  • Urgency can be the enemy of really getting to what matters. When everything is a fire, it’s hard to be discerning or to do any of the work above.  Crisis-orientation can force us into clamping down, not opening up and taking the time to answer important questions up front.  As my former colleague Julia Santiago is fond of saying, “Unless we are about to do transplant surgery, we might want to relax a little bit.”  I’ve also been thinking lately that leading with urgency can be an effort to preserve privilege (knowingly or not).

And I will admit to my own complicity in that I have stepped into each of these traps in one way or another in the past and in some cases been resistant to pushing too hard to get out and rankling folk (perhaps because I want to preserve my own standing and privilege?).  My commitment going forward is to be more of a pebble in people’s shoes.

So what have been your lessons from and contributions to collaboration gone awry?

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