How to Make Collaboration Work

Powerful Ways to Build Consensus, Solve Problems, and Make Decisions

David Straus (Author)

Publication date: 10/02/2002

Bestseller over 35,000+ copies sold

How to Make Collaboration Work
  • By the coauthor of the classic How to Make Meetings Work (more than 600,000 copies sold) and the originator of many of the most popular group decision-making methods
  • Describes five time-tested principles for making collaborative efforts more effective, efficient, and even joyful
  • Offers examples from Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, and communities to illustrate the principles in action

By the coauthor of the classic How to Make Meetings Work (more than 600,000 copies sold) and the originator of many of the most popular group decision-making methods

Describes five time-tested principles for making collaborative efforts more effective, efficient, and even joyful

Offers examples from Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, and communities to illustrate the principles in action

Every day we work with others to solve problems and make decisions, but the experience is often stressful, frustrating, and inefficient. In How to Make Collaboration Work, David Straus, a pioneer in the field of group problem solving, introduces five principles of collaboration that have been proven successful time and again in nearly every conceivable setting.

Straus draws on his thirty years of personal and professional experience to show how these principles have been applied by organizations as diverse as Ford Motor Company, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston Public Schools, Kaiser Permanente, the city of Denver, and many others.

How to Make Collaboration Work shows how collaboration can become a joy rather than a chore-a kind of chemical reaction that releases far more energy than it consumes.

  • By the coauthor of the classic How to Make Meetings Work (more than 600,000 copies sold) and the originator of many of the most popular group decision-making methods
  • Describes five time-tested principles for making collaborative efforts more effective, efficient, and even joyful
  • Offers examples from Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, and communities to illustrate the principles in action

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Overview

  • By the coauthor of the classic How to Make Meetings Work (more than 600,000 copies sold) and the originator of many of the most popular group decision-making methods
  • Describes five time-tested principles for making collaborative efforts more effective, efficient, and even joyful
  • Offers examples from Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, and communities to illustrate the principles in action

By the coauthor of the classic How to Make Meetings Work (more than 600,000 copies sold) and the originator of many of the most popular group decision-making methods

Describes five time-tested principles for making collaborative efforts more effective, efficient, and even joyful

Offers examples from Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, and communities to illustrate the principles in action

Every day we work with others to solve problems and make decisions, but the experience is often stressful, frustrating, and inefficient. In How to Make Collaboration Work, David Straus, a pioneer in the field of group problem solving, introduces five principles of collaboration that have been proven successful time and again in nearly every conceivable setting.

Straus draws on his thirty years of personal and professional experience to show how these principles have been applied by organizations as diverse as Ford Motor Company, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston Public Schools, Kaiser Permanente, the city of Denver, and many others.

How to Make Collaboration Work shows how collaboration can become a joy rather than a chore-a kind of chemical reaction that releases far more energy than it consumes.

  • By the coauthor of the classic How to Make Meetings Work (more than 600,000 copies sold) and the originator of many of the most popular group decision-making methods
  • Describes five time-tested principles for making collaborative efforts more effective, efficient, and even joyful
  • Offers examples from Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, and communities to illustrate the principles in action

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Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - David Straus

David Straus is the founder of Interaction Associates, Inc. (IA) and has served in every major leadership position, including President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board. Under his guidance, IA has become a recognized leader in organizational development, group process facilitation, training, and consulting. He is coauthor of How to Make Meetings Work. For more information about Straus and Interaction Associates, please visit www.interactionassociates.com.

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Table of Contents



Part I: The Fundamentals: Human Problem Solving

Part II: The Principles of Collaborative Problem Solving
Principle #1: Involve the Relevant Stakeholders
Principle #2: Build Consensus Phase by Phase
Principle #3: Design a Process Map
Principle #4: Designate a Process Facilitator
Principle #5: Harness the Power of Group Memory

Part III: Putting It All Together

Facilitative Leadership
Collaborative Organizations
Collaborative Communities

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Excerpt

How to Make Collaboration Work

Introduction:
The Power of Collaborative Action

People in nearly every occupation and every walk of life have to work and make decisions collaboratively. Collaboration is required at every level of every organization—be it a corporation, small business, nonprofit organization, educational institution, government agency, or legislative body. And collaboration takes place not only within these organizations, but also between and among them. Collaborative action is required, for example, when:


  • a senior management team needs to figure out how to cut expenses by 15 percent;
  • an organization wants to define its purpose and vision, or develop a strategic plan;
  • a team in an advertising agency needs to design a new ad campaign;
  • administrative staffers have to make logistical arrangements for an important company retreat;
  • a group of teachers must jointly develop a new curriculum;
  • nonprofit advocacy groups want to form a coalition to lobby for a particular issue;
  • a number of social service agencies must determine how to coordinate their services;
  • a government agency needs to update its policy for regulating a toxic pollutant;
  • or a couple decides they want to build a new house.

The list could go on and on. These and so many other activities require collaboration. They require people to work together to plan, solve problems, and/or make decisions before action can be taken.

You undoubtedly collaborate all the time—primarily at work, but also at home, in your volunteer activities, at your child’s school. You may not think of what you are doing as collaboration, but if you have to get the support and agreement of others before you can take action of some kind, then you are collaborating.

Even in those cases in which you supposedly have the power to act unilaterally—in which you can simply make a decision and then act on it—you probably know that you still have to work collaboratively. Perhaps you need to collaborate because, for example, too many people have the power to block the implementation of your decision or solution. Perhaps power has become spread out (or lateralized). Or, the potential costs of acting unilaterally may be too high. You could force a decision, but you would meet with so much resistance and create so much ill will that you would erode your base of support. Perhaps your colleagues, employees, or constituents simply expect or demand that you act more inclusively and collaboratively. Or, maybe you don’t have the skills or knowledge to make the decision or solve the problem by yourself. You may need to include and cooperate with others in order to make the best decision possible.

Whatever the situation, it’s quite clear that we all have to work collaboratively with others.

But let’s face it, our experience in trying to reach agreement with others is often unpleasant. We don’t enjoy it at all. It’s hard. Our efforts often seem ineffective. Collaboration typically involves meetings, and no one likes meetings. We make jokes about how “a camel is a horse designed by a committee.” We are cynical when we hear that a politician has appointed a fifty-person “blue-ribbon panel” to develop consensus recommendations, because we assume either that it’s a stalling tactic or that the panel is stacked with people who share the politician’s point of view. After all, how could fifty people with diverging opinions possibly reach consensus?

The problems that can arise in a meeting in which collaboration is supposed to take place are numerous and familiar. People may talk over each other or interrupt each other. Certain individuals—by virtue of their positions or their personalities—may dominate or manipulate the conversation. Participants may be unable to stay focused on one topic at a time. The conversation may veer all over the place, causing people to become exasperated. Perhaps there’s no clear picture of what the group’s goal is, or how the group is going to get there. Or participants may realize, midway through a discussion, that some key people are missing—that whatever they decide could be “shot down” by someone outside the process. These examples of meeting problems are magnified when a collaborative effort involves large numbers of people and multiple meetings over time.

The fact is, however, there’s nothing inherently unpleasant about collaboration. Working together to solve a problem, envision a future, or make a decision can actually be an enjoyable and even energizing experience.

I don’t make that statement lightly. I base it on thirty years of trial-and-error experience in the field of collaborative problem solving.

My colleagues and clients and I have proven, time and time again, that collaborative action can be a powerful experience. A well-managed collaborative effort is like a chemical reaction that creates far more energy than it consumes. It makes you feel energized, not drained. We call this phenomenon the Interaction Effect. When a group is in alignment about its direction (where it is trying to go), its commitment (the will it possesses to get there), and its capability (the skills and knowledge it has to complete its journey), there is a release of energy. Not only are team members energized by the process, but so is the surrounding organization or community. It’s this energy that fuels an extended collaborative effort and keeps it going during rough times.

Even more important, collaboration works. If you understand how problem solving works and adhere to a few basic principles, it is possible to make decisions and develop solutions that everyone can support. Through collaborative action, you can produce higher-quality ideas and solutions than you can if you work by yourself. People who are affected by a potential decision, have relevant information and skills, or have the power to block a decision are more likely to support that decision if they have had a hand in making it.

Furthermore, I believe that stakeholder voice is a basic right of individuals in healthy workplaces and democratic societies. Collaborative action is a natural outgrowth of this right and a demonstration of respect for human dignity.

So, why is it that this potentially energizing experience is so unpleasant for so many people?

In short, because most people don’t know how to collaborate effectively. Collaboration needs to be learned. It’s an art, really, that is based on a few powerful principles. But most people aren’t familiar with those principles. They’ve never been taught them.

Think back to your early education. If it was anything like mine, you were taught in school to value and strive for individual success. You studied, took tests, gave presentations, and were graded and given awards individually. Group work was neither measured nor rewarded. Team sports may have provided some antidote to all of this “I” focus, but, even there, weren’t you mostly encouraged to develop individual prowess for the sake of the team? That’s not the same as solving problems or making decisions collaboratively, which is what’s demanded of us in today’s workplaces and communities.

Another reason we don’t know how to collaborate is that our schools focused (and still do focus) on teaching us content, not process. In school, we were taught what to learn—what facts and formulas to memorize—but we were rarely taught how to learn. Likewise, we were given problems to work out, and we were eventually given the answers to those problems, but we were seldom taught explicitly how to solve the problems—what mental or physical processes to use. And since we didn’t learn how to solve problems individually, it’s no wonder we have trouble solving problems collaboratively.

In this book, therefore, I hope to help fill this gap in our educational background. I hope to help you learn about the process of collaborative problem solving. And I hope to demystify the process and show you that it really isn’t hard or unpleasant. It really can be enjoyable and energizing!


What Collaboration IS

When I use the synonymous terms collaboration, collaborative action, and collaborative problem solving, I am referring to the process people employ when working together in a group, organization, or community to plan, create, solve problems, and make decisions.

Clearly, I’m not using the word collaboration in its negative sense, as in collaborating or working with the enemy. I have done enough work in Europe and former Communist countries to know that collaboration often viscerally evokes an image of collusion. In those situations, I have found that the word cooperation has more of the intended meaning of working toward a positive outcome together. Also, using the term collaborative action sometimes helps to avoid this pitfall.

Then there are the words problem and problem solving. As I will discuss in Chapter 2, I use these words in their most general and inclusive sense. I define a problem as “a situation someone wants to change.” Problem solving, then, is simply situation changing. It encompasses decision making and planning and all kinds of creative activities such as designing, exploring new opportunities, engaging in appreciative inquiry, visioning, learning, and communicating.

Problem solving, and specifically collaborative problem solving, is a process that is largely independent of content. The distinction between process and content is very important for the message of this book. I once asked a class of sixth graders for definitions of these two words. One boy raised his hand and said, “It’s just like chewing gum. Chewing is my process. Gum is my content. I can chew all sorts of things. Gum is what I happen to be chewing now.” He was exactly right. Process is the how (chewing), content is the what (gum).

This book is about the process of collaborative problem solving. The process is content-independent. It can be applied to any kind of issue, subject matter, or opportunity. If you become aware of this process and grasp the principles in this book, you will be able to harness the power of collaborative action in almost any situation.


How This Book Is Organized

I hope to inspire and empower you to collaborate successfully with others in your personal and professional lives. Toward this end, I have organized the book into three parts.

Part I deals with the important meta-idea of human problem solving. While the focus of this book is more on collaboration than on problem solving, per se, it’s important to understand some basic facts about the trial-and-error nature of human problem solving in order to understand how humans can solve problems together. If you are confronted by an immediate collaboration-related problem, you may want to jump to the most relevant chapter in Part II. However, I urge you to return to Part I in order to build a base of understanding for the ideas that follow.

Guided by my experience with the Eastern European trainers who wanted “a few powerful ideas,” in Part II I have tried to distill what I know into five principles of collaborative problem solving. Each principle speaks to both our hearts and minds. Each principle can also be applied to any scale of collaborative problem solving, from interpersonal and small-group processes to organization- and community-wide processes. Taken together, the five principles offer an actionable paradigm, a way of looking at the world that is hopeful. What has been so exciting for me to witness is that these principles simply work. They have been applied successfully in hundreds of organizations and communities both in the United States and around the world.

Each principle addresses the specific questions and challenges you are likely to confront when trying to design and manage a process of collaboration. These include:


  • With whom do I need to collaborate? Do I really have to involve people who oppose my ideas?
  • What if there are many people involved—many organizations, departments, or organizations? How would we ever get them together? How would the process work?
  • If we actually get everyone in the same room together, who will run the meeting and how?
  • How do we keep the group from spinning its wheels or getting bogged down?
  • What if we are spread out geographically all over the country or world?
  • How do we make decisions? What happens if we can’t easily come to agreement? Do we vote?

The following is a preview of the five principles:


  • Involve the Relevant Stakeholders. One of the biggest mistakes people make in trying to work collaboratively is to exclude a key individual or interest group. “We weren’t consulted,” is an oft-heard complaint that prevents collaborative work from succeeding. So, you need to determine who the stakeholders are and how to involve them. In general, the power of collaborative action comes from inclusion, not exclusion. It’s far more powerful to have someone inside the tent than outside. The long-term payoff is immeasurable.
  • Build Consensus Phase by Phase. Consensus has been reached when everyone agrees to support a decision. And agreement doesn’t just happen; it has to be built, phase by phase. Working face-to-face to build agreements is significantly different from negotiating through a mediator. And consensus building always needs a fallback decision-making process—some way of coming to a decision if consensus can’t be reached.
  • Design a Process Map. People become anxious in the face of too much uncertainty. Before agreeing to collaborate, they will probably want some sense of what they’re getting into. What is needed is a clear means of designing and managing an open-ended process of collaboration. The most powerful way to do this is to create a process map—a visual representation of a collaborative process. The process map serves the same function for a long-term collaborative process that an agenda does for a single meeting. It defines the order of activities and gives participants a sense of how these activities fit into the larger context.
  • Designate a Process Facilitator. Not surprisingly, much of the business of collaboration takes place when people come together to talk. And, time and time again, we see and hear about leaders trying to run their own meetings. This is often a mistake! As a leader, it’s difficult for you to be neutral about how a meeting is run when you care deeply about and are accountable for the decisions made in that meeting. It’s essential that you separate process leadership from content leadership and create a new role, that of facilitator. A facilitator is a neutral process guide and servant to the group.
  • Harness the Power of Group Memory. Data overload, repetition, wheel-spinning, and lack of focus are all symptoms of bad meetings. And they all have the same solution: chart pads and colored markers. If you rearrange the seats in a semicircle, tape sheets of newsprint on the wall, and have someone serve as a recorder, these common meeting problems will be prevented. The record, or group memory, that is created in front of the group is one of the most simple—and powerful—tools of collaboration.

Part III of the book looks to the future, exploring what happens if you apply these principles of collaboration throughout a whole organization or community. How would your role as a leader have to change? How can you create a culture of collaboration in an entire corporation or community, and what is the effect if you do? I cover some of the evidence that suggests that collaborative organizations and collaborative communities function better and are healthier places in which to work and live than their more traditional, command-and-control counterparts. I also offer some thoughts on how and where you might begin to put these powerful ideas about collaboration into action right away. The following is a preview of the chapters in Part III:


  • Facilitative Leadership. Collaborative action must be enabled, promoted, and supported by leaders. And the kind of leadership required is fundamentally different from the old command-and-control model. Facilitative leadership involves new practices. If you want to build a collaborative culture in your organization or community, you must be able to model the mind-sets and values of collaborative action.
  • Collaborative Organizations. Collaborative action is not only an effective approach for resolving specific, discrete issues—it can become the norm for an entire organization. But you have to know how to scale it up, how to institutionalize a culture of collaboration. You also need a clear image of how a collaborative organization operates. A number of organizations have made significant progress in this direction. There is preliminary evidence that these collaborative organizations are more adaptive and responsive to changes in their external environments than their more traditional counterparts. They also appear to be more productive and healthier workplaces. To reinforce and support collaboration, several organizational components have to be brought into alignment, including leadership, structure, strategy, support technologies, the reward system, core skills, and corporate culture.
  • Collaborative Communities. Traditional democratic processes are inadequate for resolving the complex, systemic issues that our communities face today. Too many interests are affected, and the issues are often too ill-defined to be decided by a yes/no vote on a referendum. Multiparty collaborative action holds the promise of a more inclusive and productive process for tackling important public issues than simple majority voting. It is also possible to build a culture of collaboration at the community or city level. Several communities have made impressive progress in this direction. (Portland, Maine, provides a great example.) But just as with creating any type of cultural change, several kinds of interventions are required.
  • Where to Go from Here. The place to begin working collaboratively is in your heart. Try to hold in your heart two powerful ideas: (1) every human being has the right to be involved in decisions that affect his or her life, and (2) with good process, people can generate more creative and comprehensive solutions collaboratively than they can by themselves. Mastery of the tools and techniques essential for successful collaboration will follow. With learning and practice, you can make collaboration work for you. It’s effective, it’s energizing, and it is the right thing to do.

The Context

Throughout the book, I’ll be drawing on examples from my personal and professional life, as well as from the work of my colleagues. So, I need to offer a little context. I will frequently refer to the company I founded in 1969, Interaction Associates (IA). IA has been a wonderful vehicle for developing and testing the principles of collaborative action. A mission-driven organization from its inception, IA has endeavored to empower people in organizations and communities to achieve their most noble aspirations by demonstrating the power and transferring the skills of collaborative action. We have assisted a wide variety of clients in both the private and public sectors in the United States and around the world in applying the principles and tools of collaborative problem solving. As IA has grown to more than seventy-five full-time employees distributed geographically in several offices, the company itself has become one of the most interesting and challenging contexts within which to implement the ideas and values of collaboration.

For example, from the beginning I was faced with issues of equity and shared responsibility within the organization. As the founder and first shareholder of the company, I had the option of holding on to ownership and control and only giving up stock when challenged by key employees. This is the traditional approach to building wealth and retaining control in privatelyowned service firms. However, consistent with the spirit of the 1960s, I was committed to finding a different path, to making Interaction Associates into a collaborative partnership. I quickly learned that there was no such thing as “almost equal.” As long as I held one more share than someone else, we were not equals. As long as I retained 51 percent of the shares, collaborative decision making depended on my consent.

So, by the second year I made the great and irreversible leap to a governance and ownership structure of a partnership-like corporation, in which full partners owned exactly the same amount of stock. Such stock was purchased and sold internally at “book value” (i.e., the lowest possible cost without giving the stock away). Thus was launched a social experiment in shared responsibility and collaboration. I am somewhat controlling by nature, so this organizational structure has forced me to trust the process of collaborative action and build faith in my own powers of influence and facilitative leadership.

The challenge of having to apply the principles of collaboration to the way we live and work together at IA has been a source of great learning and satisfaction. We are at our best when our actions are congruent with our professed principles and values. Our clients notice and appreciate this. Our unique governance structure has even withstood the comings and goings of a number of partners over the years.

Just recently, Interaction Associates transitioned from a partnership model to a broader employee-ownership arrangement, in which the shareholders elect a board. That board, in turn, hires someone from within the company to be CEO, who then leads and manages all of us.

Another organization from which I will draw examples for this book is the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC). Early on, we at IA saw that there was a huge, unmet demand in the nonprofit and community sectors for the collaborative skills and tools we were offering. These organizations simply could not afford to pay corporate rates for consulting and training services. Over the years we had created, with mixed success, a number of nonprofit “sister” organizations to try to meet this need. But it wasn’t until 1993, thanks to the efforts of my friend Thomas Rice, our president at the time, that we hit on a powerful and effective model to deepen and formalize our commitment to social justice. We created the nonprofit IISC and committed ten percent of our pretax profits and up to ten paid days of every IA employee’s time to the IISC. The work and organizational culture of the IISC, which now has a full-time staff of eighteen people, have offered vivid contexts for witnessing the many ways in which collaborative action can produce powerful, positive effects on peoples’ lives.


A Process View of the World

Before we dive into the topic of human problem solving, I want to share one mental model that has been very powerful in my life and helps to explain how I got from “there” to “here.” My formal graduate education was in architecture. Frustration over how architecture was taught drove me to explore what was known about the processes of human problem solving. During my studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, I began to see the world through “process eyes,” which was for me a kind of paradigm shift. Connections began to occur to me that did not seem obvious before. What I was learning about individual and group problem solving seemed to be relevant to what should be taught in schools; how groups, organizations, and communities could solve problems; and how technology could be used to augment group problem solving. I began to see that even the intersections between the areas of training, consulting, and augmentation technology defined interesting and relevant fields, as Figure 1 on the next page illustrates.

The initial idea behind the founding of Interaction Associates was to see if some synergy and competitive advantage could be gained by becoming involved in all these different areas at the same time. Creating the company also satisfied my own desire to have an influence on many different kinds of societal problems. By defining my role as a tool giver in the fields of training, consulting, and augmentation, I could help people in organizations and communities become architects of their own futures, to solve their own problems.

image

Figure 1: A process view of the world

My hope is that as you read this book, you, too, will have some of the same insights I had and will begin to see the world through “process eyes.”

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Endorsements



"The magic of Straus's book lies in its capacity to translate complex ideas and profound insights into powerful principles about how people can work together effectively."

—David Chrislip, author of The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook

"Straus is one of America's preeminent facilitators with stories to tell and lessons to share. With his help, you, too, can build a collaborative organization or community."

—Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, MIT and President of the Consensus Building Institute

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