On Challenge, Collaboration & Changing the Way We Work: Part One

I am the type of person that drops everything and reads the book that falls off the shelf. I also turn around when a black cat crosses the road; throw spilled salt over my left shoulder—but that is another story, and a story for another time. Like Carl Jung, I believe in synchronicity. Significance is found in coincidence and it is our job to stay awake, look for truth, and stare deeply into the eyes of what comes our way.

So, when three different collaborative projects knocked on TERRAMAR’s door in a tiny span of time, I started paying attention. Our clients wanted collaboration but when you asked them what exactly it was they wanted, they couldn’t answer the question directly. Responses were layered, nuanced, complex—dare I say squishy. They wanted something they couldn’t really name and didn’t know how to get it. Yet they reassured me they would know it when they saw it.

Sound familiar?

In reality, collaboration is pretty straight-forward. There is logic, rationale, and examples galore. There are roadmaps and rules—some of which we learned on the playground in kindergarten. Yet, when you start talking collaboration, the conversation turns emotional, psychological, even spiritual—fast. Damn fast.

Why? There is tremendous longing alive in our organizations and in our field. A deep desire for this certain something, which shimmers and floats just outside the periphery of vision. This certain something that we know could change everything—could help us win the struggles that are breaking our hearts to keep losing. To loosely quote one of my clients, who expressed it best: “When we ask ourselves the hard honest questions—Are we winning enough? Are we moving fast enough? Are we bringing enough to the table as a group? Aren’t we better than this?—we have answer no. No despite the billions of dollars we have direct to the problem. No, despite the smartest minds. No, despite the biggest hearts. Collaboration is the mirage I am chasing down the road—and let me tell you, I am dying of thirst. ”

Collaboration is easy enough to grasp as an ideal or a concept, but is very difficult to develop into a full-blown living, breathing entity. In more instances than I care to count, I have watched collaboration become a loaded word; watched it bloom, but then wither and die. Change-makers want it, crave it, but they don’t often know what collaboration really is or what it will take to get there. And the work, the work of making collaboration roar to life, is often paralyzing in a world cut through with a lack of time and trust.

Collaboration is What the Cool Kids Do

Our complex world gets more so every day, and if we are honest, it is becoming more ‘bad’ complicated than ‘good’ complicated. For those whose devotion is protecting landscapes or species or cultures, this is devastating news. We thrash ourselves: “If only I were smarter, faster, bigger, better, or at the very least had some very sharp fangs, I could do it. I could slow the slide off the precipice; I could make a difference.” Frantically, we look for silver bullets and cling to the capes of superheroes. We scour our hearts and minds for new ideas, new ways, new approaches—we look for a rescue.

Stage Right: Enter Collaboration.

I am being a bit facetious here, but the truth is we are no dummies. There is something to this thing called collaboration that makes a whole lot of sense. And intuitively, we know it offers a whole lot of something powerful that may just in fact show us a way out of this crazy swirling morass we are in.

“When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” says Keith Sawyer in his book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. He argues that the invention of products like the airplane and the mountain bike; the emergence of fields like quantum physics and psychotherapy; the success of companies like Apple or 3M, are not the result of a single flash of insight. They speak to the genius of the group that “emerges through the sanding and polishing of raw innovation.” This gestalt defines the potential of collaboration and the aspiration we hunger for: to forge beauty out of loss, to create something big, bold, and brilliant; to imagine something truly innovative and inspiring. This something is what I call Catalytic Collaboration.

So, What Is Collaboration Then and Why Does It Matter?

A survey of the literature reveals that, like attempts at pinning down genius or imagination, a consolidated general theory of collaboration is obtuse. To many, collaboration remains esoteric—a detailed philosophy, proven body of knowledge, common language or guiding framework are challenging to identify. The opacity and subtlety of what we are talking about when we talk about collaboration complicates efforts to define successful collaboration or embody the principles that make it work.

TERRAMAR bases its work in the field on a definition cited in David Chrislip’s book The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook: A Citizen’s Guide for Citizens and Civic Leaders. “[Collaboration] is a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more parties to achieve common goals by sharing responsibility, authority and accountability for achieving results. It is more than simply sharing knowledge and information (communication) and more than a relationship that helps each party achieve its own goals (cooperation and coordination). The purpose of collaboration is to create a shared vision and joint strategies to address concerns that go beyond the purview of any particular party” (Chrislip 2002, p.42).

Collaboration comes in many shapes and sizes; it falls along a gamut from simple and small, to big and hairy. Regardless of scope, all forms of collaboration are valuable and needed in our increasingly world. Smaller, simpler collaboration is crucial, especially if it is strategic, creative, and a critical step to bigger wins. Small pilot projects serve as fabulous tools for learning, adaptation, and the development of the shared intelligence critical to game-changing work. Compared to Catalytic Collaboration, this form is easier to realize. Many will find this type of collaboration rote, almost mechanical.

Pretty basic right? “What’s all the fuss?” you ask. Ah yes, well, as I pondered the holy grail of collaboration in its myriad forms, talked to countless desirers and gurus alike, read way too many papers and books, I have become a Collaboration Convert, even a bit of a unabashed pom-pom wielding cheer-leader. Collaboration, especially Catalytic Collaboration, is the heart of the hard hard work we call social change. It is the tough slough in the cold, pitch-black of night. Yet, it is also the stuff of stories—the gossamer material dreams are spun from; the alchemical elixir many of us live and die for.

Leverage is great. Two organizations or individuals, for that matter, joining forces is fantastic. But Catalytic Collaboration is the lifeblood of social change and what our imperiled planet desperately needs. And interestingly enough, I think it also is a deeply personal journey. It is a pathway for humans to realize the intensely beautiful and excruciating painful gifts of our humanness and our humanity.

If It’s So Good, Why Is It So Hard?

Donella Meadows, in one of her seminal pieces, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, writes about the levers that bring about change—and not just any old change but the Big Mama of them all: System Change. She not only identifies the levers, but numbers them. You know what Number One is?: “The Power to Transcend Paradigms?!”
Now as she points out, changing paradigms is hard for us humans. Once we have found ‘truth’, we tend to cling to it like a life preserver in a raging sea. And guess what the most vital prerequisites of collaboration are: leaving your agenda and ego at the door and suspending disbelief. Oh, and of course the doozy—TRUST.

Meadows writes, “The higher the leverage point, the more the system will resist changing it—that is why societies tend to rub out truly enlightened beings. Magical leverage points are not easily accessible, even if we know where they are and which direction to push on them. There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, and madly letting go.”

So, if we accept Meadows wisdom, what we realize is that down-in-the-dirt collaboration requires we operate from heart more than head; that we let go of OUR TRUTH and open ourselves to the infinite possibility of truth held by others; that we step firmly on the very risky path of learning and growing and changing.


Yet, therein lies the real beauty and true power of collaboration—if we walk this road, unbounded possibility and greatness lies within our grasp.

Collaboration’s Gritty Glory

Unfortunately, collaboration is never as easy as it sounds. It’s just one of those things that is easier said then done. Collaboration is art and like all high art, grit is required in equal proportion to talent.

Collaboration is an indefinable space arrived at through the soul-craft of relationship, trust, time, and space. It requires a willingness to set aside individual and organizational agendas in the name of developing a collective one. It requires devotion to conceiving a carefully orchestrated and artfully executed practice that arises and evolves in response to a specific question or need. Participants often need to be incentivized to invest time and energy in the effort. And therefore, in today’s world of multi-tasking madness, unbounded freedom, hyper free-will and choice, and uber-independence, meaningful collaboration is increasingly difficult to achieve.

The culture of social change tends to believe we need change and we need it NOW. In this fast-paced intense space, who has the vision and the strength to stop, listen, learn, integrate, and potentially shift or adjust values, beliefs, and strategies? Who is comfortable naming the role and influence of power or how the play and dynamics of power sway collaborative endeavors? Who is brave enough to admit that while what they are doing or investing in is good, it might not be great or even good enough?

These are difficult questions but they are at the heart of game-changing collaboration. And really in the end, we need to ask ourselves, can we afford not to ask them? For these are the questions that reveal the skeletons and shadow sides we want to bury but which influence so much of what we do and why we do it. Catalytic Collaboration names, works with, and capitalizes on this challenging but intrinsic material of our humanness.

To Learn More Please Read: On Challenge, Collaboration & Changing the Way We Work: Part Two

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