“The meeting of self and others, of individual, or individual institution, and the community, is probably the most complex issue of our time.” Charles Handy.

“When one knows thee, then alien there is none, then no door is shut.” Rabindranath Tagore.

A group of us from business, the arts, academia and the not-for-profit sector gathered for a workshop on collaboration at the RSA in October.  The workshop was born out of a conversation that Isabel Carlisle and I had earlier in the year. We realised that we both felt collaboration is becoming more and more critical to help us address the large and complex challenges facing humanity, and that there is a lack of resources for those who want to learn to collaborate better. The workshop was a step towards improving our own understanding and finding others with a similar interest in the field.

Since the workshop I have thought much about collaboration, and have attempted to write about it. It is a huge subject and I suspect Charles Handy is right; it is the most complex issue of our time. On the other hand, I also agree with Tagore; since we are all (at some level) one, there is no such thing as an “other” to collaborate with.   So what’s the problem?

The first problem is trying to describe it, to get to grips with it in any useful way. I take collaboration in a very broad sense – to mean the coming together of individuals or groups. This could be cells, or people, or organisations, or planets. Thus I start to see collaboration, or lack of it, everywhere.  I have been led to Darwin (who it turns out, may not have been so certain about competition between individuals being the main driver of evolution – in some of his writings he clearly recognised the importance, and widespread practice, of individuals acting together), dialogue (a method of communicating and decision-making that aims to access the shared wisdom of the group), Von Foerster’s Theorem (a bit complex to explain; look it up!), open source and other collaborative methods of organisation, mycology (the study of fungi) and a whole host of other areas.

So what have I concluded? Actually it is far too early to conclude anything. All I have is some signposts, pointing towards new areas for exploration, and a slowly emerging framework that might help when I talk to people about collaboration. I will no doubt share more on this through blog posts as the spirit moves me.

I want to start by looking at the flipcharts that a group of us from across sectors wrote when we gathered for a workshop on collaboration at the RSA in October.  At first glance this was all fairly chaotic and impossible to bring together. But I persevered and managed to synthesize the points under four headings:

1.            Personal qualities

2.            Cohesion

3.            Perspective

4.            Process

Here’s some detail:

1.            Personal Qualities

Recurrent themes in the flipcharts were: respect for differences; empathy; clear communications; vulnerability; openness (to change and to new ideas); and ability to live with failure.

Leadership had a flip chart to itself, but I prefer to keep this within personal qualities. Otherwise it might imply that leadership applies to a separate group of individuals while I prefer to think that leadership qualities reside in us all. Indeed the group seemed to share this view, based on some of the comments: “leadership is possible on every level”, “shared leadership” and “leadership as a responsibility not a person”.   In collaboration, leadership is not about telling the group which way to go, rather leaders are “midwives”, they “make meaning”, they practice “servant leadership”. The dark side of leadership is when people abuse their authority to “impose their values lens on others” or create a “homogenous elite group”.

2.            Cohesion

What is it that draws people together and keeps them together in a collaborative arrangement? The initial impulse may be, as someone suggested, a “shared imperative to make things happen”. The words shared and sharing came up a lot (and I don’t believe it was always Benita using them!).  Shared values and shared language are particularly important, it seems; at the same time we need to respect differences.  Where there is a shared physical space, it should be inspiring and open (“anyone can enter”) and an “incubator”. People being physically separated was seen as an inhibitor of collaboration.

The quality of the shared, non-physical, space including economic, political, institutional and cultural factors, is clearly important. “We need to go beyond fragmented spaces” came one plaintive cry!

Communication is required for cohesion. This may be communication via modern technology, or traditional methods of human communication, whether verbal or non-verbal. “Narratives and the stories we hold” are potentially inhibitors or enablers of collaboration.

Language was a large topic and finding shared language is, it seems, part of the puzzle, although one voice warned that when language is specifically designed for sharing “it can become gobbledygook”. This suggests we have to be patient and wait for shared language to emerge from our interactions.

Acknowledgement came up more than once. Communicating our appreciation of a collaborative partner’s contribution is part of what builds cohesion.

Power and its distribution is another factor in cohesion. Uneven distribution of power, and consequent fear, came up several times as an inhibitor to collaboration.

Other perceived inhibitors included “lack of time and space” (space was another word that came up regularly) and lack of money.

3.            Perspective

Working closely with others brings, and indeed requires, new perspectives. Some comments in this area: “people and planet centred”, “agreement to transcend political differences for a common good.” “scarcity vs abundance”, and  “serve both long term and short term”.

4.             Process

There weren’t so many comments on process but I have to include it since an understanding of process is, for me, as vital as the other elements. After all, collaboration doesn’t just happen – there are many obstacles to be overcome, and a good process can make all the difference in whether the parties manage to effectively collaborate or not. Dialogue (for example, see Bill Isaacs book entitled “Dialogue and the art of thinking together”) is one methodology. Also interesting is the work by Scott Peck who describes (in his book “The Different Drum) four stages of getting to “community”. And of course there are the Quaker processes, and others too. All these can help potential collaborators open up in a way that makes it easier for them to connect with others in a way that serves both them as individuals and the collaboration as a whole.

One example of Quaker process for business is to prepare a minute at the end of any gathering. This is something that is read out and agreed by everyone before the meeting close. Isabel and I agreed afterwards that this would have been a useful thing to have done during our gathering in October.

One more thing to add: a common experience for groups coming together is that at some stage they experience conflict. Many groups never get beyond this stage – it is too uncomfortable to keep persisting. Yet those who do work through this stage find that it deepens their connection – I even wonder if true collaboration is possible without some sort of conflict at some stage.

Finally I mention my favourite comment from the workshop: “We don’t actually know”. Collaboration is a mysterious thing and to attempt entirely to understand it is fruitless and probably counter-productive. All we can do, I suggest, is to treat it as a lifetime’s adventure, and trust that we will understand a little more by the end than when we started.

I would love to hear feedback on this. And if anyone wants to see the raw data, do get in touch.