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:
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:
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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