Collaboration is the buzzword of today. Right along with creativity and innovation, everybody’s talking and writing about it, but what does it really mean for business? While it may be a great concept, the real challenge – and the enormous business opportunity – is to learn to collaborate in a way that makes a positive difference to you and your business.
In my experience, many organizations suffer from artificial harmony, an underdeveloped thinking that emphasizes overly polite and professional discussion and behavior instead of productive communication processes that generate robust dialogue, learning, and significant business results. This reluctance or inability to talk about all the options hampers innovation and growth by restricting the depth and breadth of ideas that get discussed.
There are three steps to developing truly collaborative decision-making teams:
- Co-exist – Unaware and undeveloped: This team spends time avoiding conflict, smoothing edges, playing nice, but gossiping about poor accountability among teams throughout the organization. This team does not know how to turn unproductive conflict into productive business success. This team often allows one member to make the decision, to “win,” and the rest just go along with quiet reservations. This is one decision with poor buy-in and poor support.
- Cooperate – Aware but underdeveloped: This team includes members who have read and heard management gurus tell them the benefits of functional teams, good meetings, etc. These team members want to turn unproductive conflict into productive business success, but the management gurus fell short in showing them HOW to do this, and as a result the team remains hopeful but underdeveloped. This team often makes the decision everyone can live with, settling for a C-, not-so-bad decision. The thinking in this stage produces a possibly better decision with improved buy-in and support but falls short of what’s available.
- Collaborate – Aware and developed: This team includes members who have read and heard management gurus tell them the benefits of functional teams, good meetings, etc. More significantly, these team members have had the benefit of learning HOW to see conflict as options and have learned HOW to use approaches and tools to turn conflict into productive business success. Here, the best idea wins. This team knows how to do the work to make a decision the team more enthusiastically supports. The thinking in this stage produces a decidedly better decision with decidedly better buy-in.
One of my favorite collaboration tools (one that a team in the third stage would be likely to call on) is Edward de Bon’s Six Thinking Hats. Before a team is ready to make a decision, they must determine what they want to do. They must learn more about the situation and options before they can make a decision they all support.
One unproductive way to conduct this learning is BOPSAT (Bunch of People Sitting Around Talking – Michael Schrage, MIT). The topic and decision move around the table like a hot potato, moving around the table randomly based on the most recent random question or point.
With Six Thinking Hats, however, the team is asked to use six types of thinking in a sequence to walk around a potential decision before it is made. Each metaphorical hat represents one of those six ways of thinking. The team, wearing an imaginary White Hat focuses on factual information, the Red Hat on emotions and intuition, the Yellow Hat on positive perspective, the Black Hat on caution and risk, the Green Hat on creativity, and the Blue Hat on control, overview, and organization.
Used correctly, everyone wears the same hat at the same time, for the same period of time. This not only suspends judgment until the decision is ready to be made, it also leads the team through six useful steps that help the team understand the options and possible consequences of deciding one way or another. The hats, like other productive stage three tools, help team members narrow down the best ideas in a very productive and cooperative way.
An organization’s success depends on the number of great decisions, based on great ideas, implemented throughout the organization by leaders and employees. Meeting participants who have other points of view often resist these decisions. With the different points of view, there is disagreement. Some call this disagreement conflict. I call this disagreement opportunity. While there are a number of kinds of conflict, and some of it (interpersonal for example) may be harder to address, it can be the source of business success with a change in thinking.
It is helpful to consider that when you have disagreement and conflict, you also have alternatives – different ways to solve a problem, design a widget, or make a decision. Having alternatives is a good thing, a great thing even. What’s often missing is the team’s skill in knowing how to deal with the conflict, how to deal with the options, how to deliberately and objectively discuss all the alternatives and then decide.