At the beginning of his popular book on collaboration, Adam Kahane repeats a joke he heard on his first trip to Cape Town. He writes that when faced with overwhelming problems, “we have two options: a practical option and a miraculous option. The practical option is for all of us to get down on our knees and pray for a band of angels to come down from heaven and solve our problems for us. The miraculous option is that we work things through together.”
While this joke has a humorous truth to it, it actually doesn’t require a miracle to work things through in business. Evidence shows that you can’t successfully solve problems through collaboration unless you have first prepared an ecology of mutual respect. Like summer gardens bursting into color, we must not forget that this growth is the result of nourishment and care. Successful collaboration in organizations may feel miraculous, but it comes out of a carefully-crafted environment that nurtures creative problem-solving.
As we analyze successful teams in Books@Work, we have found that a team’s collaborative abilities are most effective when we cultivate them in advance. When individuals have developed a set of skills in low-risk contexts, they are more likely to use them automatically when the stakes are higher. In other words, with practice, teams of colleagues can pull from a set of accessible tools when true challenges arise.
One of these tools is curiosity – the urge to wonder about the meaning of a dilemma with an open and inquisitive mind. What surprises me? Is there something that I am missing here? Could there be false or biased information clouding the dilemma? How might other people see this differently? We must cultivate curiosity to establish an ecology of learning and collaboration in an organization.
True reflection, both individual and collective, encourages colleagues to reconsider the pace of their thinking. In the midst of decision-making, we feel pressure to move quickly. We may be fearful that we are wasting time when we explore multiple options or consider “out-of-the-box” ideas. Experience with the fruits of unhurried conversation lays the groundwork for a slower pace that allows for diverse points of view and more creative options.
Listening promotes collaboration, but the lack of effective listening can undermine any effort to solve a problem. Listening is often a momentary pause from what a person wants to say next – or it can be a genuine dialogue where ideas build on each other. Dialogue develops when we value the richness of different perspectives and recognize the new thing that emerges when we listen carefully for what Jane Addams called “sympathetic understanding.” That kind of listening nurtures the high-quality connections that characterize effective collaboration.
In Books@Work, we have seen that these tools – curiosity, reflection and listening – flourish within a culture where habits of interaction are rooted in trust and respect. Kahane stresses that sticky problems cause us to “focus our attention first and foremost on what other people are doing or not doing or ought to be doing” – when in fact we need to begin by thinking how each of us may need to change. Once an ecology of learning and mutual respect is in place, we know intuitively how to collaborate without playing the blame game. We are ready to bring the best of ourselves to a problem, working closely with others to find a solution that is solid and sustainable. We don’t need angels or miracles to grow a fruitful garden – we just need an ecology that supports and nourishes it.
Image: Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau Garden, 1910, Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org