Illustration of drowning hand making peace sign
№ 16

Collaboration in Crisis

Reading time 5 minutes read
Holly Chisholm Unsplash

National politics, global politics, the new start-up idea, productivity software, your feedback interview with your boss, agile teams. Wherever you look, you hear, see, read about the importance of collaboration. Everyone of us is daily faced with problems that are impossible to solve on our own. In every job interview I’ve ever been in, people went on and on about their love for working together, about there being no “I” in team, about them being the biggest team player there is.
Wherever I look in real life, I see people incapable of collaboration. People doing anything but effectively collaborating. Being stressed and frustrated as soon as perspectives start to clash, suffering from hurt ego syndrome as soon as their idea is questioned. Having lost their ability to work with ambivalence, assuming the best in people's arguments, getting stuck in the infantile expectation that there is one right answer (and your own is obviously right).
I feel, like we are as apt as collaborating with different people as we were in elementary school when everybody silently prayed it wouldn’t be a group assignment, please and if it was, that you please won’t be signed up together with Stupid Nick or Annoying Ally.


What isn’t collaboration.

  • Inviting experts from different disciplines to the brainstorming meeting and hope for the best. Or everybody ending up voting for their own ideas.
  • Just because you’re using sticky notes on a whiteboard, it’s not collaboration. Especially if you secretly maneuver all the notes, you can’t make sense of, to the sidelines and let them get lost in paper trash hell forever.
  • Let people ideate on a problem, while the solution is fixed from the beginning, giving everyone this wonderful fake feeling of being treated as a dumb person
  • My all-time favorite: after not having been able to harmonize separate ideas without any connection, just patching them together into some Frankenstein monster and pretending that it’s one coherent concept. (Usually this idea is called “ONE something” to add another superficial layer of non-existing consistency.)
    (Actually, now I’m on it, beware of anything that that the name ONE in it. Especially organizations. Every company I ever consulted in or at had a ONEx strategy and you can be sure that there is no One in it, but more like 3094342 separate ideas).
  • But collaboration is also not to be mistaken with democratizing every decision and ending up with a foul compromise that doesn't serve anybody
  • Struggling with a personal task or decision, loading off your personal responsibility on the shoulders of your team mates and making your own problem to theirs.

I know everyone reading this is guilty at least of one thing of this list. So, what to do?
First things first. We need to say goodbye to some basic assumptions, we have how collaboration looks like.


Misconceptions of collaboration

Collaboration is not smooth and never will be.

Collaboration is a fucking mess and will never be smooth, so don’t pretend it can.
Doing that, not only sets you up for disappointment because you will fail every single time, but you will also aim at smoothing things out in the process and that’s actually counter beneficial. (see below)

Creating a safe space means creating an environment where everyone feels so deeply integrated and respected in the group, that they don’t suffer an existential crisis every time someone questions their perspective.

Safe space doesn’t mean working in harmonic agreement.

If you’re one of those peace-loving people who lives for keeping the state of harmony at any costs, and who is stressed as soon as somebody shoots a critical look, this next point will come as a blow. Collaboration needs and lives off friction. If you have a team of 5 people in happy agreement, you can throw out 4, because they don’t add perspectives, they just replicate what you already know. Somehow, the image of a safe space is wrongly wired in our brain and leads to wrong associations. For some reason, whenever I think of a safe space, the intuitive image that comes to mind, is weirdly that of a clinically white space (kind of futuristic), where people wearing white clothes, sit in silent agreement, end every sentence with a polite please and smile a lot. Nonsense. A safe space is actually the opposite. It’s a lively, vivid and oftentimes chaotic place. It means you are able to create a respectful environment where everyone feels so secure and appreciated that it’s safe to speak out radical truths. It means that everyone feels so deeply integrated and respected in the group, that they don’t suffer an existential crisis every time someone questions their perspective. Because they know how to distinguish between their perspective being questioned and their identity being threatened.

In short: Unless you didn’t enjoy 5 minutes of secret, detailed fantasies of hurting your team mate in very creative kind of voodoo ways, because you got so challenged by their points of view, you haven’t truly collaborated. Sorry, not sorry.

No that we've said goodbye to an unhelpful mindset, let's focus on the good ingredients for effective collaboration.


What true collaboration needs

Collaboration needs resilience

You will be in a room with multiple people (whether virtually or in the office) and you need to show up in a gracious, generous, resilient mood in order to make that work. Collaboration is not a dessert at the end of a day or a cheeseburger to go, it’s the slow-cooked, high maintenance main course that requires you with full energy, clear mind and the ability to use fine cutlery without effort. This mindset requires preparation and self-care.

Let’s revive the tennis court mindset

Conflicts remain on the court. Constructive debate and a culture of respectful discussion must find its way back into our working methods and processes instead of simply saying yes to all ideas out of a misunderstood need for harmony.

Learn to debate

The charity principle, letting go of strawman arguments, Yes and…, - don’t ring a bell? It might be time to have a look at the ethics of a good debate (or wait until the new article is published. I will give a deep dive there)

Learn to accept and work with ambivalence

There are always more realities than our own and all of them are true. Being able to cope with this truth is essential for allowing integrative thoughts to emerge in the group and build on each other's ideas.

Show up to learn, not to be right.

It’s your luck day: you can leave your ego at the door and there’s no wardrobe fee. Collaboration needs you to let go of your neediness of showing off your wits and achieve your true greatness by adopting a mindset of growth and learning.

Kill the buzzword bingo.

It is important not to understand the ideas and approaches of other people and disciplines as an alternative, but as raw material for your own thinking. For this we need a language that everyone understands. So let's say goodbye to the jargon and buzzword bingo that's just there to make our ideas appear bigger and smarter than they are. Let's start talking to each other in plain English and conveying important information in a way that people understand. (Imagine talking to an 8 year old is a good way to start).

We need to get used to say “I don't know, I'll ask" and understand this as competence. This applies in particular to executives and leaders of all kinds.

Make “I don’t know” your new default sentence.

What we need is an honest acknowledgment that none of us can know everything, that there are always more realities than our own and all of them are true. We need to re-learn to say “I don't know. I'll ask" and understand this as competence. This applies in particular to executives. Being able to admit where your own knowledge ends and being able to appreciate the expertise of others is not only a relief, but is also perceived by others as strong, credible and appreciative.

PS. Why should I care about collaboration? I’m the boss.
There might be some people reading this piece thinking: why would I need this? I’m the super boss, I don’t need to collaborate, I just decide on other people’s collaboration results. The thing I have to say to you is first, buddy, it might be nice being stuck in the 90s, but it’s time to time-travel to the presence ASAP. Second, your managing style for individuals might be as impeccable as it may - it is pretty much useless if you’re not able to lead interdisciplinary teams. Because that's the only way to innovate or save this planet, the economy or our society. So understanding the dynamics of collaboration and leading them effectively is one of the key jobs you have to excel at to be of any value to the future. I will give an extra chapter on that part. Stay tuned.

Illustration take away box

Key Takeaways

  • Four question to ask oneself when building bridges or navigating conflicting ideas in collaboration:
  • What needs to happen / What needs to be right so that the other person is actually right with their point?
  • Where is the connection between what we believe to be true?
  • What can I learn from the other perspective and take away?
  • How can I integrate their opinion instead of just adding it at the end?