The scope of global problems, the increased challenges to sustainability, the growing heterogeneity of groups and teams, and the unprecedented access to information through the internet are all rendering centralised, command-and-control approaches ineffective. Collaboration is emerging as an attractive alternative because it increases flexibility and trust through participation, because it provides access to more wisdom through synergistic processes, and because the commitment to a solution that works for all attends to more variables, which creates more robust outcomes.
Challenges to collaboration
Although collaborative approaches are gaining ground, historical and continuing cultural and systemic challenges remain. Knowing the challenges helps us face and transform obstacles to effective collaboration within and around ourselves. The first layer is internal: our emotional attitudes and beliefs. These are inner obstacles that arise from growing up in our current society, and from continuing to be exposed to certain frames of reference all around us. On the emotional plane, many of us experience fear of conflict, leading us to avoiding conflict or coercion and control in an effort to reduce the chances of conflict by “forcing” agreement. Conversely, many of us feel powerless and agree to outcomes that don’t really work for us just to maintain peace. Instead, we can aim, emotionally, to focus on the intrinsic benefit of disagreement, knowing that everyone’s wisdom is needed for a solution that truly works for all, the hallmark of a successful collaboration. To become better collaborators, then, we can learn to flex our muscle of willingness to engage with and even invite dissent.
Lastly, centuries of competition and command-and-control have made our collaboration muscles atrophy. Our habits lag behind our intentions, and we lack skills and imagination about how to collaborate effectively. This is because collaboration requires specific actions we don’t learn growing up, and are not available to us when needed. In addition, even when we are able to acquire and sustain a collaborative know-how, we interact with others who may have not done the same work of liberating themselves. We often need to do more than our own work if we are truly committed to an outcome that works for all.
Simply and bluntly: If we want to make collaboration work, we need to offer and encourage dissent; to learn to say no, to hear no, and to encourage others to say no. This is hard in any circumstances, and even more so when power differences enter the picture.
Collaboration and power
When power differences exist within a group, they add a level of challenge in terms of creating a solution that attends to everyone’s needs. Power differences interfere with information flow because they introduce fear and mistrust. This reduces the capacity to engage with differences, a vital ingredient of effective collaboration.
Power differences can be structural or social-structural. In a structural power difference (e.g., boss and employee, foundation officer and grant seeker), it is the nature of the relationship that creates the power differences, and they do not exist as such outside the relationship. Social-structural power differences, such as those of gender, race, and class, emerge from legal, historical, and/or cultural conditions that affect the individuals in question and persist beyond the relationship itself. Because of how societies are structured, the two forms of power differences tend to reinforce each other. For example, bosses are more likely to be lighter skinned, male, and of a higher birth class, thereby expanding their power.
Whatever the source and form of power, the person with less power is less likely to advocate for their needs. In the case of social-structural power differences, the system as a whole is not favourable to people with less power advocating for their needs. In addition, cultural norms tend to prioritise the behaviours and needs of the dominant group, making it even less likely that the person with less power would advocate for their needs fully.
In these kinds of settings, extra attention is needed to create the conditions for including all needs. Without such extra attention, what tends to happen is people saying “yes” without engaging their full wisdom, or withholding important truths and information for fear of consequences from those in power, or because of internalised oppression. In parallel, people sometimes say “no” without considering needs, either as rebellion (from below) or as control (from above).
Despite all these challenges, more and more people find the strength and the skills to move towards more and more collaboration. In the remainder of this article I offer a basic framework and some skills for supporting collaboration, especially across power differences.
A basic framework for collaboration
In support of collaboration, four core perspective shifts can serve both as an internal roadmap on the path of liberation from the legacy of separation, and as guideposts to gauge our success in collaborating.
From positions to principles: Even in the midst of significant disagreements on positions, it is surprisingly and reliably possible, often easy, to find agreements on principles.
From compromise to integration: Instead of settling for compromise, where everyone gives up something, we can reach integration. When people trust that their needs and concerns matter and understand others’ needs and concerns, they often experience an authentic shift into creative win-win options that feel expansive rather than narrowing.
From preference to willingness: While the range of solutions that fit within our preference can be quite narrow, we can almost always embrace a wider range of solutions on the basis of willingness.
From either/or to solutions that work for everyone: When people are invited to take seriously the needs and concerns of all as the basis of solutions that work for everyone, they become amazingly creative.
The practical building blocks of collaboration
To operationalise the overarching principle of basing a solution that works for everyone on complete understanding of what’s important to everyone, we need to develop some core capacities.
Key among these is the capacity to hold and attend to multiple needs. This means shifting from conflict, in which the problem is between us, to dilemma, in which we hold the problem together. In a conflict, the problem obscures our ability to see and care about each other. In a dilemma, we see each other, and know that only an unwavering commitment to attending to all the needs sustains the generative tension from which creative possibilities arise. With this commitment, a “no” becomes nothing more and nothing less than a pointer to new needs. Identifying and naming the needs hidden in the “no” releases opposition and leads to an even deeper collaboration. Knowing this also teaches us to express our own dissent with the intention to find solutions that include others’ needs, thereby making it easier for others to integrate our input.
Collaboration also means attending to relationships, not just the specific issue at hand. Overall, lack of attention to relationship erodes trust, while only attending to relationship results in loss of effectiveness. As we learn, gradually, to attend to both short and long term goals, we discover, sometimes through failure, that although unilateral processes sometimes produce faster results, they tend to erode effectiveness and trust over time. Lastly, the focus and clarity that come from defining and sustaining a purpose for each collaboration and each conversation within it unleash more stamina and creativity.
Engaging with the challenge of power differences
Creating effective collaboration in the context of power differences amounts to enabling all needs to be on the table and all input to be given and considered, despite the power difference. From a position of power, it means encouraging people to participate and contribute fully by reducing fear as much as possible. This means nothing less than encouraging dissent from those who habitually say “yes”; soliciting input even when you are confident of your solution; and listening with care to whatever input is presented, taking it seriously even when you disagree. It means letting go of the illusion and practice of control.
To collaborate with someone with more, say within an organisation, your task is to create sufficient trust and alliance that the person in power will want to collaborate with you. This requires some inner work to engage with and transcend your fear to access more choice. How? By doing the difficult work of seeing and engaging with the full humanity of the person in power, even when you don’t like their choices. You get there by identifying, naming, and aiming for a shared purpose with that person, and by positioning yourself as an ally to that person in service of the shared purpose rather than to challenge the person in power.
Embedding collaboration in systems
Many of today’s organisations and institutions are based on either/or, competitive, or command-and-control systems, where conflict resolution systems are either lacking or rely on adversarial, win/lose methods. It takes consistent effort to sustain a collaborative orientation without support, and many of us simply don’t have enough inner resilience or outer support. If you are an employer, for example, aiming to solicit true input from employees who are used to going along and don’t expect anything different to ever happen, can be an uphill struggle. Conversely, creating an alliance with a boss who believes in controlling outcomes may well fail even if you are profoundly committed to sharing power.
These are just two small reasons why I believe that the global challenge of collaboration will not be solved by individuals or even individual organisational leaders, even though the movement in this direction is gaining rapid ground with the catalysing work of people like Otto Scharmer, author of Leading from the Emerging Future, who’s been holding online classes for many thousands of people around the world through the Presencing Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ultimately, collaborating without systemic support requires each of us to be a saint. Moreover, even when an institutional leader embodies the spirit of collaboration in full authenticity, the entire project is vulnerable because of depending on one individual. In the end, shifting organisations and institutions towards maintaining resilience in collaborative functioning requires systems that embed the principles of collaboration across the board.
The systemic approach begins with collaborating on identifying and naming a shared purpose as well as the values that guide operations, effective collaboration being one of them. From then on, the shift entails aligning every organisational policy, process, procedure, practice, structure, or operational guideline with the organisational or team purpose and values. Sooner or later, it means examining every aspect of the organisation to see if it supports or hinders collaboration.
Consider these initial ideas. A collaborative decision-making system doesn’t mean that everyone participates in all decisions. Rather, it means that guidelines exist for when and how to involve others in decision-making to maximise efficiency and collaboration. A collaborative resource allocation system might mean a periodic budget marketplace resulting in agreements by all units. Collaborative information-flow might mean guidelines for true transparency without fear. Collaborative feedback systems generally mean that feedback flows openly in all directions, not just downwards, and is designed for learning, not reward and punishment. A collaborative conflict resolution system transcends the “badness” associated with conflict and focuses on shifting conflicts to dilemmas in which all parties are, together, on the lookout for solutions that will work for all.
A process similar to what I just described has been underway in one global organisation I am part of: the Center for Nonviolent Communication. Since 2014, a New Future Process launched by the organisation’s board has engaged hundreds of people from around the world to learn what the community wants to see happen, and then about 45 carefully selected volunteers, including myself, worked for over a year, in full transparency, to create a plan for a new version of the organisation ambitiously aiming to be fully collaborative, containing blueprints for all the systems necessary. In the process, we took the principles of collaboration as far as we know how to address the immense challenges of bridging across lines of previous colonisation or language barriers. (See www.cnvc.org/future for information and links to the plan.)
Creating collaborative organisations from the ground up is easier than transforming authority-based organisations. Luckily, there is no need to do it all at once. The initial re-orientation towards collaboration is likely to unleash an unprecedented amount of energy in the form of goodwill that can be harnessed for incremental movement towards an even more collaborative future.
One more key to success in this area is growing our capacity to accept where things are. Given the legacy of thousands of years, our capacity to reach truly collaborative functioning will likely be partial. For the foreseeable future, we will likely experience a combination of celebrating our movement, accepting where we are, and seeking inspiration and energy to keep aiming for even more transformation. Let us start now.