Unless you practice the act of collaboration with intention, you’ll find yourself having back-and-forth debate or discussion, where your main priority is sharing your personal views. Interestingly, the word “debate” comes from the Old French word debatre, which means “to beat down,” while in classical Latin, discussionem referred to “a shaking.” These words is definitely do not bring to mind the concept of collaboration.

If we interpreted these words like this today, you’d expect that in conversation, you listen to respond, not to understand — but this is not an effective or successful form of collaboration. You can’t collaborate if you’re always just waiting for your turn to speak. To put it another way: your “send button” is stuck and your “receive button” is broken.

It all boils down to this: collaborating without listening is impossible, and collaboration without letting go of believing that your idea is the best is impossible, too.

There is a way to create real collaboration. You have to let go. You have to loosen your grip on being right or on winning. You almost need to enter a conversation with no point of view, ready to receive others’ ideas and then layer your thoughts on top of them. By approaching a conversation this way, you’ll wind up with solutions you never thought of before.

Understanding the Big Picture

Imagery is powerful in storytelling. While it takes time to tell a story that paints a vivid picture, a painting or drawing can convey that same story with just one glance. At Root Inc., we frequently use imagery with our clients to help people see the big picture, instead of just their own narrow point of view. Seeing the whole picture is critical to collaboration. If you don’t understand the whole picture, you fight for your own little piece of the puzzle.

The 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle metaphor is useful in understanding collaborative communication. If you hold just one piece of the puzzle, you might think that piece depicts the whole story. It’s only when you can see the puzzle’s box top — showing all the pieces of the puzzle put together — that you get the broader perspective.

One of the best ways to show the power of collaboration is to watch Root’s illustrators at work. They are often silent participants in client meetings, listening to each person voice ideas and drawing all those ideas on a whiteboard. The illustrators iterate and layer ideas, erasing one thing and adding another, until a single big-picture image is left. The end result doesn’t look like anything that a single person in the room would have drawn. It would have been impossible to create this full story solo. This is collaboration! Everyone can see the thread they contributed, but no one person “owns” the end product because it was created by many.

Our visuals, which include many perspectives and form cohesive images, have resulted in more “aha” moments than I could even begin to count. Why? Because when people stop focusing on their isolated points of view and see the full landscape, they can finally understand how everyone plays a role in the bigger picture. They “idea hitchhike” to discover new perspectives. They see how their actions impact someone down the hall, across the country, or even across the world. They see how one decision by their department impacts another department — and they simply had no idea before, because they were so focused on their own agenda.

The power of understanding the big picture is massive, and it is the foundation of collaboration.

Three Leadership Practices That Encourage Collaboration

If leaders don’t walk, talk, and breathe a collaboration mindset, a couple things are bound to happen. For starters, people will keep their ideas to themselves. They will be afraid of being shot down. They’ll fear their idea won’t be acknowledged. So instead of dealing with that embarrassing possibility, they don’t share their thoughts. And without new thinking, innovation is stagnant.

Additionally, when collaboration isn’t encouraged, the same few will be the ones who always speak. This leads to a sense of inequality among the workforce, as a few “go-to” people establish themselves as the ones with the winning ideas. These are the folks the leaders listen to, while others fall silent.

Leaders need to believe that collaboration reaps better outcomes than debate and conversation.

For anyone looking to make collaboration part of their culture, here are three mindsets you need to adopt.

  1. It’s good to put people off balance.

If you want to encourage collaboration, you need people to loosen their grip on their ideas. One way to do this is to keep them guessing. Keep their minds open to new ideas before they hone in on their own idea and start a debate in order to “win.” If you get people thinking together and iterating before they have the chance to fight for their own idea to prevail, you’ll be on your way to successful collaboration! 

  1. Everyone needs to have an understanding of the big picture.

People need to believe that the collective whole is smarter than the individual. They need to let go of winning. Because when you come to win, you’re coming to fight for your one idea, making you incapable of listening to the ideas of others. In this scenario, people want credit, and collaboration is just a pipe dream. But when people understand that they each play a role in the big picture — and that the big picture supersedes their individual perspective — collaboration is possible. 

  1. It’s important to be on the lookout for uncommon connections.

I have a friend who was the CEO of a very admired company. He believed in encouraging collaboration by having people share ideas that didn’t have anything to do with whatever topic they were discussing. He would then challenge people to take the ideas shared and apply them to their current discussion. If photography was someone’s passion, he would ask how that industry solved a particular challenge and encourage everyone to come up with ways to apply what they learned to the current discussion. He passionately believed in applying solutions from one industry to another. These uncommon connections often resulted in amazing breakthrough ideas that no one else was looking for.

Learning to Consciously Collaborate

Great collaborations come when no one is holding onto an idea that they want to win — when they’re more interested in seeing what response their comment might trigger in someone else. It’s not easy to enter a room more interested in hearing someone else’s idea than sharing your own brilliance. But with effort, it can be done. These three specific actions are musts if you want to successfully collaborate.

1) You must let go of preference and bias.

2) You must listen to understand and not listen to respond.

3) You must believe that together you are smarter than you are as individuals.

It might take a while for collaboration to become part of your culture. It will take effort. People will have to be reminded that individuals are not as powerful as the collective whole. But when you get to the point where someone proposes an idea, and the next person adds a new layer to that idea, and then yet another person twists that idea in a new direction, you’ve succeeded. Before you know it, people will be iterating to create innovative solutions that a single person never could have thought of on their own.

And that’s the goal. That’s collaboration.

August 26, 2020

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