Collaboration is an overused term, especially in higher education. I have used it myself, often and broadly. Despite its general overuse, I added it to my top five characteristics that are required to create empowered and engaged employees. So this is my attempt to describe how collaboration looks and feels and how I have sharpened my definition as I work on being a positive leader.
Collaboration is not just a checklist item on a project plan
As a project manager over major systems implementation, I have added collaboration checkpoints to make sure we were actively engaging with the many constituents who wanted input into decisions. This is a vital part of a project when people really contribute to the decision making process so their participation shapes the outcome.
In the past, I often knew what I wanted the outcome to be and treated input and collaboration as necessary and time-consuming checklist items on my project plan. I’ve learned that when this happens for me, I know that I am not really collaborating, but just going through the motions of collaboration. I have certainly been on the other end of this, when I am called into a meeting or put on a committee where the outcome is already determined. When collaboration becomes just a checklist item on a project plan, it feels like a waste of time for everyone involved because it is. When this happens, it increases cynicism and disengagement.
Collaboration is different than consensus
I have often confused collaboration with consensus. They are not the same. Consensus focuses on coming to agreement on a decision while collaboration encourages the sharing of creative and innovative ideas. When I have been in a full consensus environment, it did not feel like an open space of risk and change where ideas could percolate and lead to richer outcomes. Consensus is often rooted in politics and in trying to please everyone, which is not possible when you are a leader. In a full consensus environment, anyone could veto an idea, which I have seen paralyze an organization.
Collaboration is deeper than sharing ideas and experiences
One of the great things about being in higher education is the willingness of colleagues from other institutions to share their experiences. I am at Educause this week, where the entire event revolves around peers sharing what they have learned with others. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to participate in a workshop at the conference that moved from sharing to true collaboration, as I worked with a peer from Temple to analyze the root causes of barriers in promoting student success across campus. Collaboration goes beyond the sharing of ideas. It involves working together to create something or to solve a problem.
Collaboration is giving away the power of controlling an outcome
Giving away my desire to control an outcome is the hardest thing for me to do and something that I am continually trying to improve upon. However, my experience is that when I have given away the control and actively partnered with others, things go so much better than when I try to control outcomes. Exerting control is based completely in fear, naturally causes resistance, and makes it harder to get things done. I used to think that it was my job to sell ideas and solutions. I have learned that selling is not collaboration, it is trying to get others to buy into your idea or solution.
Collaboration is actively engaging with willing partners to co-create solutions
I love Eric Dube’s reframing of collaboration as co-creation. The key to full employee engagement is for our processes and systems to be co-created by the people who will be using them. The overwhelming openness to work together across the entire campus on our strategic web project is a recent example of how having open conversations and extending the invitation to help solve long-standing problems is welcomed and appreciated.
Collaboration is creating a safe place to share ideas and openly challenge each other’s ideas
Creating a safe environment for sharing and challenging ideas is perhaps the most critical part being a leader. Actions speak much louder than words. When I am being humble and vulnerable, it creates a safe place for others to do the same.
One of the most powerful ideas that I have embraced as a leader is that it is not my job to come up with all of the ideas or solutions, but to ask good questions to expose ideas that will help the team create solutions. We then can have the conversations that will remove barriers and move us forward.
Collaboration is amazingly fun
True collaboration feels good and is an amazingly fun way to work. It is delightful to create innovative and interesting solutions with others in a supportive environment. I have found that engaging a skilled facilitator or using liberating structures are both helpful in promoting collaboration.
If you are collaborating and it is extremely painful, I would suggest that you or your collaboration partner might be trying to control rather than collaborate. Something to think about this week.