For most modern organizantions, the classic “command and control” model of leadership is on the way out and is being replaced by alternative ways of working together. In the transition, there are many opportunities for confusion, misunderstandings, and false starts. Much of the discussion around these newer approaches focuses on “collaboration” and yet there doesn’t seem to be a clear sense of what that really means. We also find that our 2130 Partners' clients and Vistage members also experience or at least encounter resistance when the subject of collaboration comes up. Most often the underlying thinking seems to stem from the perception that “collaboration” is the same as "cooperation," which they believe they already do, or fear that it means “consensus,” which is seen as loss of ability to get anything done.
Let’s consider the following definitions:
First, from an excellent Wall Street Journal article: “The Hand That Feeds You: What makes some collaborations with suppliers succeed – when so many fail?” by Nancy W. Nix, Robert F. Lusch, Zach G. Zacharia and Wesley Bridges.
Collaboration: An intense process where partners exchange information and pool their capabilities to solve problems that each can’t tackle individually.
Cooperation: Parties merely consider the needs of the other while working toward their own goal. The two are arranging things so that both come out ahead, but they haven’t shared information or worked together closely to devise a novel solution to a complex problem.
Following these definitions it is pretty clear there is much more creativity and effectiveness available when collaboration is present rather than mere cooperation. However, to become truly collaborative there are some critical pieces that must be put into place:
1) Participants surrender their own protective barriers and come with a commitment to create an essential atmosphere of mutual trust, respect, and safety.
2) Participants create, support, and place more importance on accomplishing shared goals than competing with each other and gaining credit for their individual accomplishments.
3) Participants commit to outcomes that exceed their own insights, so it can’t always be about “looking good.”
One of our “Essential Notions” the “Leadership Effectiveness Zone,” summarizes the core elements for creating a context or paradigm that allows collaboration to flourish.
Essential Ingredients (See - Leadership Effectiveness Zone):
- Connection – must be present - in an atmosphere of mutual trust, respect & safety
- Alignment – on a shared Yonder Star, or shared vision
- Focus – Yonder Star is kept present, roadblocks & potholes are quickly addressed in partnership
Now lets examine "consensus," applying the following definition from Wikipedia:
Consensus: General agreement, group solidarity of belief or sentiment
We often encounter the fear that consensus requires unanimous agreement or, that if you as the leader listen to everyone’s input you will then have to do “whatever they want.” Just because you solicited input and listened carefully to your subject matter experts, it doesn’t mean you must acquiesce to everything they recommend. It also doesn’t mean that you make decisions that only create harmony and general agreement between everyone on your team.
The goal is clearly not outcomes and decisions so watered down they will be “toothless.” Collaboration is a form of respectful interaction. Its primary value is in putting all the cards on the table, subsequent creative exchange that can lead to unforeseen powerful outcomes, and the sense among participants that they are heard. The leader will still generally “call the play” or make a decision among competing ideas.
Understanding the distinctions between collaboration, cooperation, and consensus is essential to achieving the responsiveness, creativity, agility, and focus your leadership will require to succeed in today’s world.