The word collaboration covers a wide range of structures and behaviors. It covers the ad hoc connections between the US Boy Scouts and the Campfire Girls organizations. It covers pot luck suppers. It covers the cooperation between German troops and Polish citizens during the occupation of Poland in World War II. It covers two people in a canoe.
Tools that support collaboration have become an industry. At the top of the computer window into which this is being typed there is a “collaborate” button. Click on the button and one is faced with several choices anyone of which will enable a colleague anywhere in the world to gain immediate access to the document being written—and change it or comment on it. On a larger scale there are many technical tools available for meetings, either face to face or virtual through the internet.
The instant availability of databases of all kinds has led to the omnipresence of smart phones, tablets and laptops everywhere. The image shown above of people working together around a table comes from a large catalog of photos on the internet. When we searched for “people working together” more than 18,000 images qualified. There were smart devices in every photo, and in most photos people were focused on their devices and not the people they were sitting with.
While enriching many discussions with real-time information, all of our technology is of little help with the most difficult issue of collaboration—finding solutions that are optimal for a whole organization (or community or society) and gaining agreement to move towards them. This is because optimal solutions to complex issues almost always require some people or some groups or some institutions to set aside self-interest, and we have become expert at defending our self-interest, our ideas, our ideology, our partisan position.
To create those extraordinary moments when people set aside their self-interest to take action that will benefit something larger than themselves, it is necessary to turn to our core humanness, to elicit our collaboration response. This only happens when we set aside our technology, face each other, and work through the issue at hand together, fully engaged. These moments are enormously important; they result from a deep and natural response to challenging conditions, a response that leads to solutions better than compromise, better than “deals.”
Here is a question asked by a student at a recent talk we presented:
Q: Have you actually seen people support something that is a direct denial of their ideology or strong positions they’ve held for a long time?
A: Yes, many times. It’s hard to imagine this happening when it hasn’t happened to you or to someone you are working with. In fact, when it happens to you you may not notice until you reflect back on the moment ten years hence. Here’s a few paragraphs from The Collaboration Response that attempt to describe what happens as the collaboration response kicks in:
Imagine you are a teacher in a large school district and a member of the teachers’ union. You are invited to an education summit and are determined to defend the rights and interests of the teachers. You find yourself seated at a table with a student, a parent, an administrator, a school board member, a banker, a graduate from the class of 1955, and a school librarian. You look them over. You’re not sure what the fourteen-year-old can contribute; you’re hoping that the school board member is not the one who writes op-eds in the newspaper; the 1955 graduate has a hearing aid; and the parent looks clueless. But they’re all friendly and polite during the introductions. Soon, you’re standing at a time line hung on the wall trying to remember facts about the history of the school system; then you’re finding themes and stories in the events and facts with others who are standing with you; then back at your table, you talk vigorously about the implications for the future that stem from the history. Next, you look outside the school system at what’s going on that might affect the schools: in the city, in the state, and in the world. There’s only forty-five minutes to make sense of what it means for the school district—and your table has to give a report to the large group of 188 people. You’re beginning to appreciate the other people at the table, as each of them contributes something to the discussion that didn’t occur to you. Some of them are downright helpful, and one of them volunteers to give the dreaded report and does a pretty decent job of it, including key aspects of the teachers’ perspectives that you shared and that they almost got right. You feel overwhelmed by what is happening in your state and don’t know how the system will cope with new mandates coming from the legislature. Your table muddles through and contributes some valuable insights to the summit at large. You have a sense that the eight of you at your table are all in this together. You are very happy to have them as allies. The real issues are coming at the system from outside. There’s an opportunity you can sense to effect some change in the world if you work together. You’re a proud member of your school district and will defend your system for the student and the parent at your table who deserve the best. Your identity has shifted—at least for the next couple of days and possibly longer. Long enough for both parts of your brain to do their best to advance the common good. When the moment comes, you will let go of the narrow interests of the teachers to do the right thing for the whole system.
Q: Did this really happen?
A: Yes, at an education summit for a medium sized city.
Q: Could something like this happen at a summit meeting on school safety or gun control?
A: Yes. Sound like a great topic for a blog entry!