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The Role of Collaboration in Creating Effective Teams
It’s not uncommon to find that most people consider collaboration and negotiation as similar approaches to solving problems. These two techniques have been inaccurately interpreted as interchangeable processes for discovering or debating solutions to a problem at hand. However, the two underlying processes embedded in the two approaches entail very different dynamics when designing a team, and each approach requires a different set of skills.
If we adopt a negotiation orientation, our goal is to find a path that leads all parties toward agreement. From a metaphorical perspective it’s like weeding a garden. Everyone focuses on what they are willing to discard in the process of defining what stays and needs to be attended to. In this approach differences are removed in order to build a feeling of unity around whatever challenge the team has collectively defined as relevant. This focus requires good debating skills and benefits those team members who are articulate and quick to discover paths toward agreement. Historically, men have benefited from this approach because being aggressive, hard-driving, and getting your way have often been seen as negative characteristics when applied to female behaviors.
It can be instructive to think of collaboration as almost the mirror opposite to negotiation. When first establishing a creative team, the intent is to design a system that benefits from differences by diversifying membership. Whether this takes the form of introducing differences in backgrounds, expertise, experiences, generational perspectives, or any number of categories that harbor different insights into whatever is being discussed, the goal is to leverage that difference by building a more comprehensive understanding of the complexity of the problem under discussion. Rather than trying to narrow the focus to arrive at some agreed upon resolution, the process of collaboration strives to be more inclusive by incorporating multiple perspectives with many intervening variables that require attention. It’s the difference between drilling down on a subject as compared to designing a scaffolding process to support the complexity of managing multiple relationships among interactive constituents. The glue to this system resides in the team’s tolerance for ambiguity, feeling supported and being recognized for the unique value that each person brings to the team. Historically, women have often excelled in this approach, since their societal roles have emphasized inclusion and conflict resolution.
First, let’s start off by identifying when working within a team is better than constructing a working group or going it alone. For the most part this question has its
answer in what kinds of tasks you are trying to accomplish and what types of information are available to you.
In researching the literature on decision making, one of the better models divides the discussion into three buckets. The first bucket has the person making the decision with the appropriate background and expects to grapple with the task without consultation. In this case all of the variables are known, and the activity would fall under best practices.
The second bucket would entail leading a working group where there would be several experts each assigned to carry out their work independently of other experts in the same group. In this case, the leader would consult with the appropriate person responsible for that specific area of expertise and avoid the confusion that could arise from having non-specific experts engaged in the discussion and the decision.
The last bucket is where teams can be extraordinarily beneficial. This occurs when the information that is needed for a decision is interdependent among a variety of constituencies. All of the areas under consideration are dynamic and interconnected but do not behave in a linear fashion. It’s under these conditions that cross-functional teams with diverse backgrounds can be of a real value. This orientation is not about relying on best practices because they don’t apply under these conditions. Leading teams using this rubric is more about listening and guiding than telling and directing. Rather than trying to simplify this challenge, the focus is on trying to manage complexity. Again, searching for a metaphor to describe this challenge, I am reminded of the difference between conducting an orchestra with a specific musical score as compared to leading a group of musicians during an improvisational session. It’s all music, but under very different circumstances.

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