Collaboration is subversive

Geoff Aigner is the director of Social Leadership Australia (@leadership_SLA). As part of the Benevolent Society Social Leadership Australia draws on best practice leadership thinking and techniques with social insights. You can check out their highly regarded leadership program here

The wish for collaboration rarely translates into reality.

It’s become quite fashionable for leaders in organisations to say they want their people to collaborate more effectively, both internally and externally. This is a noble and important wish. But as that (very old) saying goes,  “You can wish in one hand and spit in the other and see which one gets filled up first.”

The wish for collaboration rarely translate into reality. In fact sometimes this wish, and the continued use of now-quite-fashionable collaborative language, does more harm than good. It has become overused and started to represent some kind of magical thinking which we rarely see in our work and organisations. So what happens then is potential collaborators get caught in a “low dream.”

Low dreams

Social Leadership Australia sees this in many of the collaborations we support in our consulting work. Stakeholders often come in with one of three “low dream” motivations:

  • I want to see if I can gain something.
  • I want to make sure we don’t lose anything.
  • My boss forced me to come.

This is not a problem of poor intentions. I honestly believe that most organisations and change leaders sincerely do want to collaborate. Most of us understand that many (and probably most) of the toughest problems we face can’t be solved on our own: we don’t have the power ourselves to implement, or we don't have the ideas to innovate (or both). So we recognise we need others—different functions, values, cultures, sectors or geographies working together to conceive and implement adaptation in our systems. We can’t have a conversation about fixing the whole system without the whole system being part of it—as annoying as other parts of that system might be to us.

Competing commitments

But this is where it starts to get difficult.  Our part of the system (my organisation, work group, culture or whatever “faction” you sit in) wants to collaborate but it doesn’t really want to lose anything. In other words, we encounter the competing commitment of a relationship that will actually change us. “Yes I want to work with you and gain the benefit of that—but also I don’t want to have to give up anything.” It sounds a bit like a marriage.

This competing commitment is felt most keenly by those who are pushed forward by their organisations, factions or cultures to collaborate. If we have the awareness and skill to really start to work with others and participate in the inevitable negotiation around power, control, benefits and losses then we begin to see what the collaboration can bring to changing the system. But our home faction has either forgotten about us out there in the world trying to do something beyond business as usual and/or were just banking on the wins without any of the losses.

This is what makes the role of a collaborator in any collective endeavour inevitably subversive.

It is subversive for two reasons.

Resistance from the status quo

Firstly, our systems are generally supportive of the status quo—no matter how much they talk about wanting change. And the status quo rewards and promotes doing business with people like us rather than dealing with diversity in stakeholders or ideas. Often systems are not only not supportive, they actively discourage working with difference.

I meet many collaborators who meet the aggressive suggestion from their own systems that perhaps they should “just go and work for THEM!” when they are doing work which is truly collaborative.

Secondly it is subversive because it requires thinking beyond our own sub-system’s interests and instead focusing on the gains and losses that others might experience from other parts of the system. It means moving beyond either naïve ideas of WIN/WIN (if there was a WIN/WIN somebody would have already taken it) or getting stuck in a competition for the benefits.

It means sharing wins and losses and, ultimately, power.

How do we work with this subversion and survive? It means having a much clearer understanding of the multiple roles collaboration calls forth. Collaboration fails when collaborators only conceive of themselves in one role. That is, the “advocate” role for their own faction.

A delicate balance

This role needs to be balanced by the “system” role—this is the role that works on the level of the whole system and how to adapt it. No one makes progress when we are all stuck in the advocate role. Similarly, if all we take is the system role our faction might “kill us off” or pull out of the collaboration altogether, because we aren’t looking after our own faction enough. Seeing that everyone needs to be aware of and hold both these roles is a vital step in effective collaborations. It requires awareness, skill to move fluidly between roles and, ultimately, compassion. It requires and engenders compassion because all collaborators need to and become keenly aware of the delicate balance we all hold in balancing these two roles and find ways of being useful to each other.

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This post originally appeared on Geoff's blog

Posted by Gemma Carey