Collaboration is key to achieving results in organizations. Yet cultural programming and the pounding mantra to compete from every sector of society often overshadows the possibility of collaboration. Thankfully today there seems to be a growing interest, along with a growing need to collaborate. In this article, we explore several societal norms that impede collaborative work and tips for overcoming them.
So just what does it mean to collaborate? Collaboration involves two or more people coming together to share their collective knowledge, experience, and creativity to arrive at a shared understanding or tangible outcome that none of the individuals could have arrived at on their own. Collaboration is more complex than teamwork, which tends to operate in a sequential fashion to accomplish tasks or to join together to defend against outside forces.
I like what Michael Schrage of MIT has to say about collaboration…[collaboration is about] the creation of value; a process that our traditional structures of communication and teamwork can’t achieve.
Today, I’d like to take an unusual approach to exploring collaboration by looking at what stands in its way. If we are to teach a fish to walk on land, we must first show it the water that it depends upon. But a fish, being surrounded by water all of its life, is unaware of it.
Madness is rare in individuals–but in groups, parties, nations, and ages, it is the rule.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil—
Just as the fish may be clueless about the water in which it swims, there are streams of behavior and themes of belief through which we unwittingly travel that stand in the way of us effectively collaborating. What are they? I share my take on them below. In the spirit of true collaboration, if you share yours as well, we’ll build on this list.
Eight Barriers to Collaboration and Their Remedies
1. Tendency to stand on positions instead of sharing interests. My position is “what” I want: a new accounting system for instance. My interest is “why” I want it: I’d like to get paid on time. Once interests are revealed, it’s often possible to find common ground to meet them and if not, at least the parties involved know motivates others and may find ways to accommodate these needs in the future.
Remedy: Encourage people to share their interests underlying their positions. This may require doing what you can to create a degree of safety and trust in the group.
2. Failure to recognize the complexity of group thought. When we think that communicating and producing outcomes in teams should be just as easy as doing so individually, we tend to negatively judge the slower pace and additional processes required for collaborative activity. These judgments of ourselves or others cloud and impede our work together.
Remedy: The first step toward effective collaboration requires us to be patient with the process, expecting that while working with a group will be slower and more difficult than working on our own, our outcomes will be worth the investment.
3. Commingling task and process. Group work is often confused when we avoid separating discussions of task (the group goal), and process (how the group will complete its goal). Discussing process is confusing if done before the task is clear. Yet in this high-speed world, we’re all called upon to do less with more and charge off to “get it done” quickly. When groups don’t get clear about what “it” is, they aren’t focused on the same objective, and they can’t collaborate.
Remedy: Get a clear consensus on task before pursuing it to get your collaborations off to the right start. Then get consensus on the process you’re going to use to get there which might include tools, techniques, timeframe, decision-making approach, quality standards, accountability, etc.
4. Multifocusing. As individuals, we can attend to only one item at a time. Groups can multifocus and this capacity can make it very difficult for all individuals to track what’s going on.
Remedy: See that all relevant inputs are heard by everyone and recorded on flip charts or some other visible means for everyone to see.
5. Serial communication. Accustomed to simple one-on-one conversations, in groups we tend to listen to others share stories, information or opinions, until a space opens up for us to do the same. What we share doesn’t always connect to what others have said. And seldom do we check to make sure we really understood what was said. This self-centered style of delivering messages does not contribute to a shared understanding, the hallmark of collaboration.
Remedy: Computer networks that engage in serial communication do something called “handshaking.” After receiving a message, the receiving terminal replies to the transmitting terminal to let it know the message was received and checks the accuracy of what was received. We’d do well to emulate this process in our human “networking” activities more often.
6. The loudest and fastest get the floor. The most outspoken and quickest thinkers often dominate group discussion. While their inputs may be valuable, they don’t represent all of what the group has to say and often not the best of what the group has to offer.
Remedy: Once again, to effectively collaborate, see to it that multiple methods are in place to invite and capture all relevant inputs. Use small groups for more intimate discussions and debrief their work in the large group. Call on those who have not spoken. Hold silent brainstorming sessions. Go around the room to hear everyone’s idea or input. Ask them to speak when moved to speak. Also ask them to perform a self-check before speaking by asking themselves whether what they have to say is relevant, positive, and necessary to the group’s objectives. Conduct check-ins to take the group’s pulse where you sweep around the room and let everyone have 15 seconds to give their thoughts on the current issue.
7. Addicted to consistency. People dislike inconsistency and will attempt to eliminate it. When mental conflict occurs because beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information, people will tend to suppress, rationalize, avoid, or oversimplify it away.
Remedy: Help people to hang in there when mentally challenged by new ways of seeing things. Remind them that in order to arrive at a solution that fits with reality, they must be willing to face the full complexity of the situation. Facing complexity can be challenging but facing it as a group, they don’t have to do it alone.
8. Distractions and Disassociation. Every group encounters distractions from the late arrivals and early departures, to uncomfortable surroundings, to telephone interruptions, poor technical facilities, etc. The coupling of distractions with the difficulty of group thinking causes individuals to disassociate from the task at times to take a mental break. All participants tend to wander from time to time resulting in a short circuit of the group mind.
Remedy: Presume you are losing some members all of the time and regularly summarize and document the status of the discussion.
I’m sure there are more barriers to collaboration in the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that we consider “normal” in our society. Keep your eyes, ears, and hearts open as you traverse the collaborative landscape, looking for ways to point out and heal these barriers in your group work.
And while you do this ask yourself, What do I do, feel, or think as a group member or leader that might stand in the way of collaboration?
What do you see as norms or habits of human behavior that stand in the way of collaboration? Send in your ideas. I’ll integrate them into this article and repost it for you to refer to online. We’d love to hear from you! Just add your comments below to share your questions, feedback, or experience on this topic.