Collaboration: The Courage to Step Into a Meaningful Mess

by Margaret Wheatley March 1, 2011

By Alycia Lee and Tatiana Glad, 2011
With a special thank you to Bob Stilger as a reflection partner

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We have all experienced the messiness of collaboration: the divergent perspectives that we wonder how to marry, the many coloured post-its that litter the walls having grown out of their intended organised-by-cluster layering, the agreed action steps that lost  original inspiration as soon as the group re-encountered the every day life of e-mail and phone calls. What makes collaboration worth it?

Over the past year, we have been working to build what we have come to name a talent collaboracy–that is a collaboration agency and talent laboratory that brings together and draws on the diverse talents that we find within our community. Why might we be doing this? We are already a Hub–which is by definition the meeting point of multidisciplinary social innovators dedicated to world-changing initiatives. Well, we have found out that while collaboration seems to be the easy answer to most problems, it isn’t a very easy practice. And so we set out to learn more about how it is that we can better serve communities and organisations in creating the conditions for collaboration where it is most needed. We share here the lessons learned from our own experience and reflection.

Collaboration is Supposed to be Messy

If you get more than one person in the room, you have dissonance. We are not saying that harmony is completely absent, but each person is unique with his or her own experience, belief and view on things. Ensuring each voice has a place to be heard and
respected can often uncover clashes. Working with others is easy, but really rolling up your sleeves to fight for common achievement even when it means uncovering the ugliness–and examining it–is not. In fact, we have found in the day-to-day work within our familiar social networks that references to collaboration tend towards common colloquialisms for “talking with one another” as opposed to the act of working together or united in labour, which the word’s etymology suggests.

We have also found that people find comfort in pretending we think the same way, and often we gravitate to those who affirm our way of thinking. Perhaps this is because we are eager about the common, world-changing goal we have discovered between us. Yet,
the whole raison d’être for collaboration is a requisite diversity. Otherwise, what would spur the reason to collaborate in the first place? We have found that it is just at the threshold of tension where differences surface that we face the possibility–and choice–to enter into curiosity and a common inquiry. That’s when innovation has the potential to emerge from collaboration, and sometimes that means staying in the messiness just a little bit longer.

A Constant Invitation to Stay Connected

As this creative tension builds and coalesces, something has to hold this collective inquiry together. In much the same way that the process is meant to be holistic, it calls for a holistic engagement between people. Participants must work from the core concepts of trust, sharing, belonging and respect to create an interrelatedness that needs constant cultivation and attention, remaining mindful that the person who differs greatest from you is important and requires your engagement, not your ego. One cannot obligate collaboration, but only invite it.

At times the conversation meanders toward humor, recollection and story before returning to the challenge at hand. Do not underestimate these moments as they often bring people into deeper association as equals and colleagues. These moments are the
ones that build the social infrastructure of a continuous invitation for people to connect and collaborate. Connection makes it possible for freedom and responsibility to symphonise. “People engage when they can contribute as a full person–not just give a part of themselves.”1

Engagement is a constant invitation to stay connected.

Protecting and Translating

Two often-invisible roles have become more evident through this work: the protector of space for uncertainty, and the translator of value.

It is easy to doubt when you do not know the outcome but confidently believe you are on the right path. We are so driven to attain results that we often bypass one of the key components of creativity: the ability to question what we think we know. Making room for imagineering and ingenuity means holding back on coming to certainty in favour of holding ambiguity. This makes people nervous and they need assurances that questioning interpretations, paradigms and understanding of what is real and true does
not mean throwing out what is real and true. Sometimes we have to be okay with not knowing so that we can move on to something better. Even more so, sometimes we have to allow space for complete questioning of what we have come to accept as reasonable. In seeking entrepreneurs that contribute to progress in our world, the Unreasonable Institute actively pursues and supports “those who are just crazy enough to ignore the skeptics, who remain undeterred by persistent failure, and who, above all, are convinced they can change the world.”

Roots of Aliveness: Leading as a Living Process

by Margaret Wheatley December 6, 2007

by Michael Jones, 2007

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whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them

And the dirt

Just to make clear
Where they come from

—Charles Olsen, “These Days”

It has often been said that our span of awareness is a mile wide and an inch deep. The quality of our inner life is frequently overlooked in our efforts to cope with the daily demands and expectations of our outer life. One enabling metaphor that helps us look at this is the ecology of a tree. The outer life is symbolized by the leaves and branches; they correspond to a life of reactivity and busyness—of action plans, performance goals, desired outcomes and results. Sometimes we direct our attention down a little, to the trunk and lower limbs. Here we look at structures, strategies and processes. Where we spend the least of our time is the ground underneath. Yet it is the roots and the soil that give the tree resilience and the strength to grow and weather sudden changes year after year.

The shift from focusing on the trunk and the branches to the ground beneath corresponds to a shift of awareness from a factory-production mindset to a more adaptive-artful one. Giving our attention to the ground beneath an organization or a community involves an artful process of creating form out of ambiguous and variable circumstances. This includes the very precise and complex interaction among many subtle variables including energy and space, tone and atmosphere, rhythm and time. Our language shifts from action and meaning to story, metaphor, felt experience and the underlying stillness that holds it all.

Root systems, like artists, learn to create in the moment, to search for the soil conditions that feel most fertile and alive, to inquire, to sense and absorb, to follow their attractions, to invent and change course in the moment and to feel their way. In other words, in their search for connective and fertile ground, roots travel a road less traveled, just as we do as we seek to find our way.

Yet we are still influenced by an industrial-age mindset that impedes our ability to adapt creatively in a time of complexity and sudden change. We still tend to rely not on our own deep intuition but on external authority, preconceived actions and mechanisms for scheduling and control. Management theorists Henry Mintzberg and Alexandra McHugh write:

Strategies (and this may apply for life as well as leadership and organizational strategies) grow like weeds in a garden; they are not cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse… Sometimes it is more important to let patterns emerge than to foresee an artificial consistency… Sometimes an individual actor … creates his or her own pattern. …Other times, the external environment imposes a pattern. In some cases many different actors converge around a theme, perhaps gradually, perhaps spontaneously. …To manage in this context is to create a climate within which a wide variety of strategies can grow.

What can we do to create the ground for roots systems that are resilient and life affirming?