Collaboration Challenge: ‘Playing Nice’ Can Be the Enemy

by John Canfield

Communicate_0514Collaboration 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 the business.

An organization may attempt to build collaboration by gathering into a team unusual people with unusual ideas, and a cross-functional team recruited company-wide will have perspectives a “silo” team does not consider. This offers an enormous opportunity to capture some really great, new ideas, but there are challenges that must be addressed. The team must, of course, build buy-in for the idea. An idea without buy-in is like a car without a motor or a boat without a sail; both are required to make and implement decisions that improve an organization’s productivity. But how the people behave will affect the quality of the idea the team produces. 

Meetings very often 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 types of groups, but only one is truly a collaborative decision-making team. In my experience, most teams go through the first two before they arrive at the third, ultimately more effective, classification. 

Type 1: 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. Decisions elicit poor buy-in and poor support.

Type 2: Cooperate — aware but underdeveloped: Members of this team have read and heard management gurus tell them the benefits of functional teams, good meetings, etc. They 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 here produces a possibly better decision with improved buy-in and support but falls short of what’s available.

Type 3: Collaborate — aware and developed: Not only have the team’s members read and heard management gurus tell them the benefits of functional teams, good meetings, etc., but, more significantly, they have been taught 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 here produces a decidedly better decision with decidedly better buy-in and support. 

Productive collaboration, then, requires both an effective decision and cooperative support (buy-in). Common behaviors that do not help are:

Avoidance: The team member does not want to influence either the decision or the buy-in. “Just make the decision so we can get out of here.”

Accommodation: The team member has a strong need to be liked. “Whatever you say; I just want to do the best thing for the team.”

Competition: Strong egos need to be right and keep control. “Everyone is entitled to my opinion!”

Compromise: Although this is a higher-level response than the above three in that it usually requires some amount of discussion, it falls short of true collaboration. Team members may have a strong sense they’re missing something, but they are willing to end a meeting to reduce the frustration. “I can live with that … onto the next meeting.”

When leaders have the skills to lead collaboratively, their ability to help their team work as a Type 3 will pay high dividends. At this point, they demonstrate the most effective behavior:

Collaboration: The team has deep dialogue, a very interactive conversation that helps everyone communicate and learn. “Best idea wins!”

The look of Type 1 and 2 meetings can often be described as what Michael Schrage, a fellow at MIT’s prestigious Sloan School of Management, calls BOPSAT (Bunch of People Sitting Around Talking). 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.

The look of Type 3 meetings is quite different. These meetings use “tools” to guide the team’s thinking — not telling anyone what to think, but how. These tools are, fundamentally, great questions. One of my favorite collaboration tools is Edward de Bono’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.

With Six Thinking Hats, the team is asked to use six types of thinking (six kinds of questions) 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.

Using this tool 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 Type 3 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, some of which (interpersonal, for example) may be harder to address, conflict can lead to a change in thinking and thereby be the source of business success.

It is helpful to consider that where there is disagreement and conflict, there also are 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.

Playing “nice” — allowing teams to operate as types 1 and 2 — generates weak decisions and weak buy-in. That is no way to run a productive and profitable business. It’s time to say goodbye to “go along to get along.”    

John Canfield is author of The Good Thinking Series. As a corporate coach ( offering practical tools for strategic planning, collaboration and innovation, he has more than 30 years of experience working and consulting for organizations around the world. 

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