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Lessons in Collaboration

Friday, October 22, 2010
When we speak of collaboration we often talk about the benefits of serendipity or emerging leadership, but within the confines of the current public institution, complete with Ministerial accountability, perhaps we speak about it too much. My underlying worry is that proponents of collaboration do themselves a disservice by failing to engage in a debate around how to be directive within a collaborative effort, to demonstrate how exactly collaboration is different from the status quo, and what are the inherent benefits of this new approach. The conversation around collaboration to date is far too Utopian for my liking; it conjures 1960s imagery of peace and love. Collaboration, it would seem, is a real righteous groove, and those who oppose it are just squares in need of a good melvin.

This attitude makes me uneasy. I think it is problematic, and the reason I think we are stuck there is that we don't know how to be directive within collaboration. We seem to think that collaboration is an open arrangement that, through a mystical and undefined process, reaches an outcome. What we are missing is discourse on how we move from open process to outcome. We need to unpack the elusive magic between the two. In order to do this, I want to first lay out a conceptual frameworks and then move to an example to illustrate my thinking.


The "Why", "How", and "What" of collaboration

"Leaders hold a position of power or authority. But those who lead inspire us. Whether they're individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. And it's those who start with "why" that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them." - Simon Sinek, "How great leaders inspire action" TEDx Puget Sound (full video embedded below)


My view is that being directive within a collaboration largely means inspiring action:



One of the problems is that we tend to inverse Sinek's golden circle (as explained by Sinek in the TEDx talk above), focusing too much on what it is that we do. How many of us would describe our work starting with why we have chosen to undertake it?


The proof is in the collaborative pudding


Last week a small group of public servants held a free collaboration-themed conference for 200 of their colleagues (called the Collaborative Culture Camp, or C3). While there are a number of things about the conference worth mentioning, I will try to limit my comments to the context of directive collaboration.


Why collaborative culture?


The idea to focus on the cultural elements of collaboration came from Richard Akerman. I was facilitating a session on the future of GCPEDIA and was lucky enough to have Richard sitting in my group. I noticed him slightly behind me going over something in his head. When pressed, Richard shared this gem (paraphrased):

"We, as web practitioners proceed to a discussion about the platform upon which collaboration happens because we recognize the inherent value of collaboration over the status quo. If others don't recognize that value then they don't understand why they should ever pick up a collaborative tool in the first place. Perhaps what we need to do is show people the value of collaboration."

The intervention itself was brilliant, timely and right on target. It provided a ‘why’ around which people could mobilize, a ‘what’ and finally a ‘how’. In short, his leadership inspired action. Now what I find fascinating is that Richard himself wasn't a part of the organizing committee (at least in a formal sense). He was present, but on the periphery. It would seem to me that the person who issues the direction (leadership inspiring action) doesn't need to be physically present if the direction is compelling enough to inspire the "how" discussion.


How to build a collaborative culture


The organizing committee also had to engage in a discussion of how the group itself would work, assign tasks, report back etc. This was incredibly challenging. However agreement on why we were initiating the work provided some common ground upon which to build out the details of how we would go about doing it. But even here we needed direction. We were friends, colleagues, and professional public servants, yet we were also reticent to step up and be directive (at least in my view).

We eventually settled on a model for decided quorum, assigning leads, and delegating the authority to those leads to make any decision they faced along their critical path. For example, at one point I was in charge of booking the venue and was delegated the authority to enter into agreement with a provider should the space have met our needs. Trust then seems to be a critical element and is only possible when there is agreement as to why a particular thing is undertaken. The “why”, it would seem provides a common ground upon which how and subsequently what can be built.


What to do? Host a Collaborative Culture Camp


Having ironed out the “how” the group could finally focus in on the what. We settled on a dual track unconference model that allowed multiple ways for people to participate. You could lead a session, you could take in a fireside chat, if you weren’t interested in a given topic you could move into another session that was more to your liking.

In some cases, organizing and operationalizing the “what” was detailed and tedious. For example someone had to step up and handle the registration emails, the responses, the wait list, etc. The only explanation as to why someone would take on this work is that they believed in the why and in turn accepted the responsibilities. If we had simply asked someone to take care of that for us I doubt they would have been as committed as Tariq was.


Looking back before looking forward


The goal of the conference was to help teach people about the value of collaboration. Looking back, I think the organizing committee not only taught others the value of collaboration, but also learned a great deal about it during the process, and demonstrated that learning the day the conference took place. That being said, my reflections on what happened that day will have to wait until next week. Thanks for reading, and congratulations to everyone who raised a hand and got involved with the conference.

Kudos on a job well done.