Friday, February 17, 2017

On Collaboration - Again

In an organization (or life) there are like three major categories of positioning which you can have towards reaching your objectives. They may be either enforced upon you (by the situation or organization) or they might simply be self enforced by your convictions, confidence or values. These categories broadly are:

1. Asking for permission.
2. Discussing facts, ideas and needs to reach the best possible outcome. Eye to eye.
3. Reaching your goal independently.

For the first option you need to consider three things if the organization enforces it on you. The positive one - what am I missing? Maybe there is a piece of information I don't have access to and asking for permission is a gate aimed at creating an opportunity to learn more (or risk management). This might be the case especially if you are new to the organization or to a project. The other two are not so flattering; it might be a either sign of personal weakness / lack of self confidence (you need permission from a higher moral authority to proceed the way you think it is the best) or a sign of a dysfunctional relationship / organization — political, hierarchical and dependent. Nevertheless, having to ask for permission needs an explanation and an open dialogue. There might be very good reasons behind.

The second option may add significant costs and overhead (think thread contention in software engineering) but opens the doors for better decisions (albeit slower) and, in many cases, a more rewarding job experience and better team bonding. People learn to trust each other in the process of passionate exchange of ideas. They start trusting their ability to think and find rewarding the intense mental process of constructing a better solution together with colleague.

The third is the opposite of the second more or less. Works when the effort to collaborate is higher than the gain obtained from walking the extra mile and when there is very little interdependence. Will encourage silos if practiced too often and will generally result in a degradation of knowledge sharing and communication.

This article is about independent, self confident people, that don’t need to assert their personal influence through the use of their position. This article is about reaching the best possible outcome in the context in which one might not have the full picture. This article encourages people to communicate, share and collaborate. It encourages eye-to-eye dialogue. It opposes dependencies and complexity. It encourages this:

Point no 1:

If you don't trust your employees, why hire them in the first place?

The second option is about trust above all. It implicitly asserts: I trust your ability to collaborate and I trust your capacity to think clearly and engage in a constructive conflict of ideas. I trust your capacity to support your view of the world, I trust your capacity to understand the other's view of the world and I trust your capacity to build on several different views. Preferably not a compromise, but a solution that incorporates all needs. A win-win.

Compromise is the lose-lose type; everyone loses, but just a little bit. You get part of your stuff, but pay a price.

Point no 2:

The problem space may be too vast for one person to comprehend. This is why we need teams and collaboration. And collaboration means dialogue, patience, empathy, trust and willingness to take time to reach a win-win arrangement. Again, not a compromise. But again, it is costly, so brace yourself. Sometimes a compromise might just be good enough. But not the first option and, I dare to say, not desirable, as it leaves everyone a bitter taste. Plus it weakens the culture. And I think culture should be first; thus the default solution is always to collaborate.

Point no 3:

Option 1 is not even hierarchy. It is an assertion of discretionary power.

Point no 4:

I understand and respect roles and responsibilities. It is a form of respect towards the people and the organization at large. Their role is to streamline decision making and settle expectations. They create clarity and diverge discussions from trivialities.

I don't understand discretionary power. When I say "please check with me before", I don't mean "ask for permission". I mean, "please let me know because I am interested" or "let's first discuss because I might have some perspective to bring to the solution". This is an invitation to collaboration, it is trust, it is respect. It is "I trust you to have confidence to allow me to intervene and have an eye-to-eye dialogue on this common topic of interest".

Point no 5:

I am not against hierarchy as long as it is based on a common understanding of roles and responsibilities. Sometimes you simply have to say "guys, we're doing it like this" if the discussion reaches a deadlock, the matter is trivial or time is of the essence (it matters more than the quality of the chosen path). Attention: it is addictive, dangerous and will erode culture (ownership, involvement) if not practiced with exquisite care. Better err on the dialogue side.

Point no 6:

Dialogue between people may be very difficult to initiate and will generate resistance and bruises in the beginning. Hard to start, hard for everyone, especially if the culture is not used to it. In a culture of escalations and self-protection, it will lead to a lot of conflicts, nit picking and will probably increase attrition. Treacherous path. But have faith. Time is on your side and your continuous push will change the culture in the end. There will be followers.

Point no 7:

Support the followers of the culture you want to create. Sometimes you might have to be political to be able to move on (and not completely bring the system to a dead halt), but this is time borrowed on the expense of the culture and it will create confusion on where you really stand. There is a price in everything.

Point no 8:

Sometimes collaboration is not about reaching a mutual agreement. You may simply reach out to a peer to brainstorm or seek for a different view of the situation at hand. He may not have a stake in the outcome. Same process applies. Advice is optional to follow, yet asking for advice is the responsible thing to do - the "you don't know you don't know" stuff. In this case win-win is not about winning or losing something. But rather the process of harmonizing two different view points for the sake of reaching deeper insights.

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