Back in July, in an article on Natural Enterprise, I relayed this story of canine collaboration:

I recently watched our dog, the hypothyroid and arthritic Chelsea, sitting in the shade with our visiting daughter’s small dog Laker. Chelsea always enjoys canine company but after introductions they don’t really ‘play’ together, they just sit around outside (kind of like their humans do), watching the world go by. Suddenly as I was watching, Laker spotted a chipmunk and raised her head suddenly. Within 15 seconds, Laker and Chelsea, who had never ‘collaborated’ on anything to my knowledge, and who certainly had never individually caught any of the abundant wildlife in our area, had, together, outflanked, flushed out, cornered and trapped the chipmunk, which simply gave up, lay down and closed its eyes. In that fifteen seconds there had been at least 50 moves made by each of the three ‘players’ in the drama, a sophisticated chess game of trial and error, signalling and tactical adjustment. It was absolutely stunning to watch. When we pulled the dogs away and rescued the poor chipmunk, the look of triumph and joy on the dogs’ faces was unmistakable. They sat close together panting for several minutes, looking at each other, their expressions a canine ‘high five’.

Both dogs were pound rescues, never trained to hunt. Clearly this ability to collaborate, and succeed where individual effort invariably failed, was instinctive.

A few days ago, Innovation Consultant Carolyn Allen wrote me as follows:

The following comment toward the end of your essay [on The Wisdom of Crowds] stood out to me: “Or is it just  that civilized humans, who see selfish behaviour exhibited everywhere (and often rewarded), have lost the intuitive skills of collaboration?” I think you identified an important concept here. Networking is a crude attempt to establish collaboration in a non-collaborative system. And the skills involved in identifying the group’s wisdom are important steps toward effective collaboration. But there seem to be so many steps that are missing. How can collaboration can be built in a non-collaborative environment? I value collaboration as an efficient organic form of  survival — but must admit I’m not good at it. But the hunger for authentic, productive collaboration is deep and burning. I just know there is hope there somewhere.

We’re often told that Western society is individualistic to a fault, while Eastern cultures are more collectivist. Does that mean they’re more collaborative as well? The evidence would seem to suggest they’re more obedient, deferential and compromising, but not necessarily more collaborative. And what’s more valuable in business: competition or collaboration?

My Knowledge Management colleague Karl-Erik Sveiby did a survey of global business a couple of years ago to try to answer this question, and also test the popular wisdom that the precondition for collaboration is trust. The results of his survey might surprise you:

Collaborative climate tends to improve with age, physical proximity, education level and managerial role. It is generally better in the private sector than the public sector. Collaborative climate seems to peak at the mid-size firm level. Employees tend to experience a U-formed appreciation of the collaborative climate: very positive at recruitment, then deteriorating and later [among the survivors] improving again.

The Wisdom of Teams says the preconditions for successful teamwork (something akin at least to collaboration) are (a) broad commitment to a clear, common purpose or goal, (b) a shared sense of urgency, (c) broad-based, productive participation and sense of belonging, (d) open communication and trust, and (e) complementary skills and diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. The authors also suggest that organizational leaders make lousy team-members (they can’t relinquish control and they intimidate others from playing an equal role). The best teams, in fact, are leaderless, self-managed in an egalitarian way.

Ever watched people try to work together to produce a report or presentation? It’s painful, a tug of war and a battle of wills. It’s about as far from collaboration as you can get. And have you ever watched a ‘negotiation’, an attempt to arrive at consensus, turn into a debate? These activities never seem to produce true win/win collaboration, and I wonder if they ever really have. The closest we seem to get to collaboration is agreement on which individual will do which parts of a ‘group’ project, and the occasional acceptance by one person of another’s idea. These modest work allocation and knowledge transfer tasks are what misnamed ‘collaboration tools’ facilitate. I’ve worked with a lot of such tools, and I’ve never seen anything that could be called real collaboration happen with them. In fact I even went to a conference a few years ago, sponsored by the developer of one of these tools, where the consensus of the audience was, in effect, “Don’t bother trying to make the tool better — people don’t really collaborate anyway, so a tool won’t help”.

Group blogs and community of practice/interest ‘spaces’ don’t engender collaboration either: People merely ‘share’ the space to pursue and document individual activities that are (hopefully) of interest to others in the group, and to curious visitors to these spaces.

Why, when we are such social creatures, miserable and often even unable to survive when we’re all alone, are we so unable to collaborate effectively? Is this a talent we never had, or an instinctive one we’ve lost, and, if so, why?

Let’s assume that tribal, pre-historic, pre-modern-language man collaborated in hunting activities the same way Chelsea and Laker do. In Darwinian terms, that makes sense: Such collaboration helped man survive and therefore such behaviours or instincts would tend to self-perpetuate and even evolve. After all, compared to carnivores, man’s ‘natural’ hunting tools are pretty rudimentary: Chelsea and Laker have a better sense of smell, sharper claws and teeth, stronger digestive juices, and thanks to their ‘dew claws’ an ability to change direction during the chase more quickly than any man. Language is of no real advantage: There is no time to plan, coordinate or shout instructions. You have to know instinctively what your role is in the collective task of trapping your prey. That means split-second reactions to the actions of both the prey and your collaborators. Is collaboration, as Carolyn suggests, perhaps instinctively limited to situations where there is simply no time for anything else?

I don’t think so, because I can think of several examples of much more leisurely collaborations. Case in point: A few years ago one of our neighbours sent out invitations to a ‘work bee’, to repair and refinish the century-old barn that serves today as their garage. Refreshments were offered as inducements, but my initial reaction was reluctance: Were we being ‘Tom Sawyered’ into doing someone else’s work? My wife, who has a lot more sense than I, dismissed this and volunteered us immediately. As readers know, my lack of manual dexterity and coordination are legendary, but I participated, learning how to do several things I’d read about but never understood, and making up in energy what I lacked in competence. I can’t describe what an incredible sense of accomplishment we felt, or how much sheer fun we had. Every time I drive by that barn, I say to myself with unrestrained joy:  We did that!

I’ve also watched jazz combos improvising, and it’s electric — pure, joyful, leaderless collaboration. I’m sure that this is what, in their prime, the creative efforts of Lennon and McCartney and George Martin and the rest of the Beatles’ team were like, and that this is why their collaborative work is so vastly superior to anything any of them produced after that collaboration ceased. Such collaboration is surely a form of magic, creating and accomplishing what no individual could ever do.

Another example: Being so uncoordinated, my favourite sport is volleyball, six to a side. When you’ve played with your team-mates for awhile, you can sense without even looking where they are and who will take each volley. Rarely does anyone give instruction to the others on the team, you just learn, as part of the organism that is the team, how to be a better player by just playing.

I don’t have any biological children, but I was part of my two step-children’s lives from when they were 5 and 7 respectively. They were brilliantly brought up single-handedly by my wife, under challenging circumstances. I was just there, late, to reinforce and offer moral support until they were well into their teens, when I finally had the audacity to provide, when asked, my personal advice. It would have been irresponsible of me, a late-comer, to have behaved otherwise. This was not collaboration. But my daughter-in-law, whose first marriage also ended quickly, took a very different approach to raising her daughter, and continues that approach with the second daughter she bore with my step-son: Let anyone who wants or cares participate in the shared, collaborative effort of raising her children. She’s a believer that it takes a village to raise a child. It drives my wife, who sees this as irresponsible, crazy. But it’s certainly easier, perhaps a richer learning experience for my two grand-daughters, and probably more fun for all concerned. Not better, necessarily, just different, and more collaborative.

I know, I’m rambling all over the place. There’s a point here: Collaboration is instinctive and selected-for in evolutionary terms because it succeeds. But we collaborate not because it succeeds, necessarily, but because it’s fun. True collaboration, in hunting, in the arts and music, in sports, in raising children, is a joyous experience, and gives you a feeling that you cannot get from any individual pursuit. That feeling is the remarkable sense of collective accomplishment. We did that.

So why do we so rarely get this in business and in other ‘group’ activities? I think one of the main reasons is the modern and self-reinforcing spiral of personal egos and the over-exercising of personal power and authority. Hierarchy and individual competitiveness have perhaps quite deliberately killed all the fun of working together — that joyful feeling of collective accomplishment is, after all,  threatening to egos and to power, since those in power lose control and can no longer take credit as leaders for the successes achieved. In fact, there is some evidence that (with the possible exception of basketball) the best sports teams are those with no superstars and non-interventionist coaches, where the team has balanced talent, makes collective decisions and takes collective responsibility for successes and failures. Maybe we don’t need leaders or management, and maybe we should all be earning the same salary. Can’t have that in a modern corporation, can we? And aren’t all our modern social, economic and political structures — companies, organizations, political parties, institutions, schools, governments, professional sports teams, even musical and arts and charitable groups — really similar: Hierarchical structures with unequal power and authority and compensation, and big egos at the top dedicated to keeping it that way?

We have a cult of leadership, at least in North America, where consultants don’t dare make a proposal that doesn’t suggest leadership will play a critical role in every project’s success, where we idolize and give globally-televised awards to actors and singers and network anchors who do nothing more than competently mouth the lines fed to them by brilliant, ignored and underpaid writers and researchers in settings painstakingly created by thousands of equally ignored and underpaid workers, where CEOs are obscenely overpaid and new recruits are paid less than in any other developed nation, where sports heroes and talk show hosts and rock stars earn tens of millions of dollars per year in industries where the average wage is less than the minimum wage. And why do TV networks have this compulsion, after team sporting events, to pick an individual ‘star of the game’?

Those few with the wealth and power have a lot to lose if word ever got out that:

  1. The Wisdom of Crowds, which costs almost nothing to obtain, produces consistently better decisions than the best managers and experts,
  2. Truly collaborative teams without leaders or managers or superstars consistently outperform hierarchical groups, and have a lot more fun, and
  3. As Norman Jewison said when he received the Irving G. Thalberg lifetime achievement award at the Oscars five years ago, it is writing excellence and collaborative behind-the-scenes effort, not the delivery of the result by a few individual stars, that produces great film, music, television, and theatre.

Is the crushing of our instinctive tendency and desire to collaborate a conspiracy by the rich and powerful to keep us under their control? Maybe it is, but the important question is What can we do about it? Here are my thoughts:

  • Get involved in truly collaborative activities. If you have never experienced that remarkable feeling of collective accomplishment, you don’t know what you’re missing. Not only are such activities fun, they’re extraordinary learning experiences too.
  • Be vocal when a project or activity that could or should be (or is advertised as being) collaborative, is not, either because it’s set up hierarchically in the first place, or because some of the ‘players’ don’t behave in egalitarian, collaborative ways. Most people don’t recognize the critical difference between a truly collaborative team and a group, but if that’s articulated, most people, either by instinct or from experience, will recognize the difference and the superiority of true collaboration. Teach them. Show them.
  • Help the team self-select and self-manage. Oust the big egos and out the wallflowers and lurkers.
  • If your work and play don’t give you regular, real opportunities to participate in truly collaborative efforts, and if as a result you’re not really having fun in either, maybe it’s time for a change.

I’ve outlined a few examples of true collaboration here, but there are probably better models and examples to follow. What are your best and worst experiences in collaboration, and what advice would you offer to those looking to collaborate more, in this decidedly uncollaborative world?

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  1. Siona says:

    My contribution to the practice of collaboration would be to encourage trust. If you open your heart to the idea that people are natural-born collaborators, and that we are creatures cabable and willing of working well together, and creating well together, you help establish an atmophere condusive to collaboration. Believing, fully, that human minds are made to connect and inspire socially, as a group, is self-fulfilling.I know I’m not offering much substatial, but I did want to add my $.02.I also wanted to note how utterly incredible this blog is. I’m dumbfounded by the quantity and quality of what you write. The one downside is that I’m often too humbled and speechless to respond. So thank you, truly.

  2. Great piece, Dave. Fascinating ramble! Loved the chipmunk story. (Reminded me for Rupert Sheldrake’s discussion of instinct in his mind-blowing book The Presence of the Past.) Your conclusion about the importance of fun strikes me as true, often overlooked or dismissed, and very much worth investigating further.Terry

  3. gbreez says:

    Excellent as always. Are your blogs becoming hotter? More passionate? I sense a change, though, as a relative newbie, I have missed quite a few (and it takes time to go through all the archives). This one is right on the money, lol. You are correct that it takes trust, something missing today. Perhaps that is because our leaders have so heavily let us down, proving to be rampant liars. But, as Siona suggested, it may be up to us to take the lead, with our hearts, providing the trusting atmosphere necessary for success. I just won’t be able to extend it to authority figures, I suspect, ever.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    Dave … may I have your permission to share this essay with a Collaborative Studies Network, and the participants in the recent Banff New Media Institute summit I attended, titled Participate/Collaborate: Reciprocity and Social networks ?

  5. Life Tenant says:

    You make a lot of good points. I would add that leadership and collaboration are not necessarily mutually inconsistent. Some of the most effective, genuine leadership is provided by people who listen closely and respectfully to advice and information provided by others, including people who may be classified as subordinates within whatever hierarchy they may find themsellves. Even a non-hierarchical group often relies on the initiative and energy of one or a few members who persuade, encourage, motivate, and coordinate others — that’s leadership, too.

  6. Rayne says:

    While a person at your level of emergence might be all about collaboration, a person at the lowest level of emergence might rely heavily on competition. It’s not that these things are mutually exclusive, but humans are innately programmed to rely less on collaboration the more challenged their survival may be. We can afford the investment in collaboration when we don’t have to scrap for the very last morsel of food, in other words. Darwinian theory of “survival of the fittest” means that at the threshhold of survival, competition is essential to weeding out those that are unfit. Fitness when the threshhold is removed may be indicated by effective collaboration.To encourage increased collaboration, we need to recognize that not every individual is at the same level of emergence, is not equally threatened/safe and may not be an equal participant in collaboration for this reason. Real leaders in collaboration will find ways to elevate those who feel threatened to a point where they can safely collaborate to meet their own self-interests as well as that of the group.(I still owe you a few links from comments a few posts back, Dave; they are highly related to this and your next post.)

  7. Glad you shared more of your thoughts about collaboration with us…it is such a worthwhile journey to explore in our topsy-turvy world. While i agree that “fun” is an appealing part of collaboration, I think we underestimate the more serious motivation of “survival” as one of the driving forces and results of collaboration. The nuclear family, the village, even governement have grown out of our need for survival…not fun. Fun is the icing…and yes, we all seem to have a sweet tooth ;-) but nutrition is based on things more mundane, more soid, more long lasting than fun. What are those basic elements that are our true motivators? I think they have to do with relationships, with quality of life (food, shelter, protection, etc.). When we collaborate with a few people in our lives, we discover amazing new dimensions of skills (as your barn restoration project showed), self confidence, belonging and resiliency to deal with the challenges life throws at us — environmenally, as well as politically, biologically and historically. I believe humans are more than predators…we also have the capacity to be herbavors…peaceful, communal beings. Maybe that is part of our evolution pathway? Thanks for sharing your insights with us.Carolyn

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. I’ve been doing some more research on collaboration, and starting to realize there is a lot more to this subject than I’d thought. I really do think that collaboration is natural and competition is not. Competition arises with extreme scarcity, it’s a ‘last resort’ behaviour when things get wildly out of balance. We have this romantic view of nature as a savage, dog-eat-dog place where the struggle for survival is constant. But when you observe nature first-hand it isn’t like that at all. Few creatures fight with their own kind, and even then only in extraordinary circumstances and rarely to the death. And the actions of predator and prey are not brutal and terrifying, but more like a dance, not at all like human violence. That’s not a romanticizing of nature — it’s Darwinian to have a world of peace and joy, makes all creatures want to perpetuate it and themselves, where a world of continuous struggle and suffering is not conducive to either survival or evolution.

  9. Life Tenant says:

    The biologist Lynn Margulis, who proved that mitochondria descend from symbiotic bacteria, has argued persuasively in books like Microcosmos that cooperation contributes to survival, natural selection and evolution no less than competition. Symbiosis is not anomalous but prevalent in the natural world, and is essential to the survival of many species and vast numbers of organisms. Cooperation is no luxury to be dispensed with in case of hardship.

  10. Nirmala says:

    Hi Dave,Excellent stuff! I enjoyed reading this passionate article of yours immensely. But then, I have a few things to say – Yeah…collaboration is the way to go; but I think natural leaders will emerge in any group that you bring together – whether you like it or not. What we probably need are leaders who are ‘genuine’ leaders – those who know when to follow and when to let some one else lead! I read this fascinating article on how some birds fly (was that geese?) and how they take turns in leading the flock! But yes, the downside when it comes to human beings is – once a leader, always wanting to be the leader – ego, power et al. I don’t see any way out. Blessed are the teams that have a ‘leader’ that will let others be leaders when the situation calls for it. Somewhere, deep inside, each of us want to find the leader in us, even if we weren’t the type that wants to crush others in the way. The bottom-line is this in my view – Collaboration is a paradoxical concept that still calls for leaders that can also follow. How the team manages and balances this paradox determines its success! :)Nirmala

  11. Vince Williams says:

    Bravo! Magnificently Expressed. I Consider this Piece a Manifesto For All. Brothers and Sisters, I learned an important Lesson last Night: The Lesson of Humility. We Men All Must Heed the Women In Our Lives. That was one of the lessons of Edna Ferber’s novel, Giant. I Would Like to Thank My Brother Ed Slavin And My Brother Dave Winer For Their Unceasing Efforts on Behalf of All The People. Cheers. Amen

  12. sheri says:

    i realize this is an older article but i’m writing a piece for a cooperation studies group i’m involved with and came across dave’s amazing article. i’ve read it before. thank you dave, i agree it is a kind of manifesto. and i LOVE the passion as well. passion is such a mirror for strong energy and life force wanting to flow through. thank you for sharing this presence with us. when leadership and collaboration come together, we see collective or shared leadership. i didn’t hear that mentioned in this essay but it’s a place i work in. to me this takes us further along the spectrum toward cocreation. i work with the center for ethical leadership which has been funded by the kellogg foundation for 5 years to do collective leadership development across this country and we’re now bringing it home to seattle. it’s amazing how needed this is, how we don’t have the capacities for doing this and how the urgency and our very survival is calling for us to gain new capacities in these areas. so i wanted to name collective/shared leadership as a meme…thanks again for the great juicy conversation! sheri

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