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Caught up in Kumbayah: Are There Limits to Collaboration?

NCDD member Cynthia Gibson published a post yesterday in The Philanthropic Initiative’s blog that is definitely worth a read.  It certainly strikes a chord or two with me!  It begins…

I love to collaborate.  The more, the merrier, I say.  I’m excited by the “crowdsourcing” taking place in our politics, commerce, education, and social spheres.  But, recently, I’ve started to wonder about whether all this collaboration is “all good.”

Behind this curiosity is my participation (in various capacities) with several organizations that happen to pride themselves on having a “collaborative culture.”  That includes ensuring that there is adequate input and discussion from everyone on a range of matters; valuing and trying to find consensus; and being respectful and collegial to others engaged in these conversations and gatherings.

So far, so good, right?  After all, the more ideas on the table, the better.  Not to mention that it’s a great opportunity to build relationships and trust, I say.

What I—and others—are starting to see, however, is that there can be a tendency for organizations to see collaboration as an end unto itself, rather than a process, management style or approach that’s a means to an end:  clear and informed actual decisions.  As a friend who consults with many large nonprofit organizations said to me recently, “I sat in an eight-hour meeting with a group that prides itself on its collaborative culture…But they couldn’t see that there’s a difference between valuing collaboration as a process and making decisions about outcomes.”

Read the rest of Cindy’s post at http://blog.tpi.org/?p=469.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Gerry Andrews says:

    Hi Cynthia,
    I understand exactly where you are coming from!
    I think we have all been in – and probably been responsible for ! – those interminable meetings where everyone is contributing, but to no purpose.

    For me the answer lies in effective facilitation.

    Effective facilitation that is properly planned and designed and well executed will avoid the problems you describe. The problem with these types of meeting is not only is there no defined 'task', purpose or objective, but little or no thought has been given to 'process'.

    This does not have to mean that principles of collaborative working have to be sacrificed. In fact, open, evaluative and collaborative group working is essential.

    Thought needs to be given to the 'task' or objective for the meeting and it is generally better if the person (task leader) who is responsible for the outcome or 'content' is not the person who is facilitating the meeting ('process' leader). This way the facilitator can concentrate on identifying and using the most appropriate processes, tools and techniques to get the group working together.

    I've been part of some really excellent facilitation and it really does work, so much so that sometimes you don't even notice it ! I also practice it and can vouch for facilitation being seen as a critical skill/tool in any manager's toolbox.

    Hope this is useful.

  2. I'm not sure I follow:

    "A related concern is that collaboration can elicit the regression to the mean. Remember when the White House asked the public to vote on what they thought were legislative priorities and the number one answer was legalizing marijuana? Definitely a sour note in the crowdsourcing melody."

    Granted, Obama's "Citizens' Briefing Book" had many flaws (both with regard to process as well as technology) but unless you apply an overly broad definition of collaboration it doesn't even qualify here. Like many crowdsourcing efforts, collaboration was not required to create a list of priorities.

    The fact that a so-called fringe issue came out on top doesn't really say much either (except maybe that its proponents did indeed collaborate extremely well to get the most votes).

  3. I read this blog post as an invitation to question some common misconceptions about collaboration, including that it is best served through consensus decision-making, or best achieved through minimizing individual advocacy and initiative.

    Instead, my own experience in well-facilitated groups has been that the more deeply that individual perspectives can be heard and acknowledged, the more shared understanding can emerge.

    I have also found that collaboration often works best when it is not directly coupled with formal decision-making structures… but when instead, it designed to generate the kind of shared understanding that supports greater alignment and coordinated action, while inspiring participants’ creative initiative within their own realms of decision-making authority.

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