Behind the Scenes of Collaboration

August 22, 2012, by Lisa Avvocato in Collaboration

If collaboration was so easy, everyone would be doing it and great ideas would grow like flowers on a sunny spring day. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple and great ideas are not guaranteed; no matter how collaboration tools an organization has in place. In an HBR article, Nilofer Merchant lists “Eight Dangers of Collaboration” which are really roadblocks that need to be overcome.

This leads to two truths that must be accepted in order to successfully collaborate. 

  1. Ambiguity is inherent
  2. Conflict is inevitable. 

In most instances where collaboration is needed there is no right answer; multiple plausible options and a few great options will exist. The challenge is combining different characteristics of these options to create a solution.  As a result, there is an inherent ambiguity that is associated with collaboration that must be accepted. 

Collaboration involves “complex problems that are beyond the function of one domain or expertise;” meaning team members must be comfortable not having all the answers. This can be difficult for driven individual who like black and white answer, enjoy being the “expert” and vehemently argue their point of view in order to garner support. However, accepting the fact that ideas from a variety of participants will contribute to a comprehensive solution allows team members to open their minds. As a result, they are able to see different sides to the project they would not have distinguished on their own.   

On the other hand, team members should not be afraid to be the expert from time to time. A high-performance team will consist of members with multiple background and areas of expertise; therefore, each individual must be an expert or a leader at one point during the collaboration. Otherwise, why are they even on the team? Successful collaboration hinges on different leaders and experts stepping up to offer ideas; but, relinquishing control to another expert when the time comes.

The inherent ambiguity and multitude of options are going to lead to conflicting opinions. Debate among opposing idea and possible solutions is what makes collaboration successful; if everyone just agreed, important aspects could be missed.  It is important to note, however, that debate and argue are two very separate things. Arguing is closed-minded and based on an “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality while debating is open-minded and based on a “devil’s advocate” mentality. One is productive, the other is destructive.

Constantly challenging assumptions is what drives innovation and debating different points of view is necessary for multi-faceted problems. However, there is a balance between challenging assumptions and going down the wrong path. Opposing views for the sake of opposing views can quickly become unproductive. Teams must be able to recognize when a consensus has been reached and leaders must be able to redirect the topic if collaboration has run awry.

Accepting ambiguity and conflict allows for the limitless collaboration that sparks innovation and creates competitive advantages. Resisting ambiguity and conflict leads to stagnant collaboration that can leave an organization vulnerable.

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