COLLABORATION: The Gift of Collective Desperation (And Talking Your Way Through It!)

Photo Credit: Jason Leung,

Whose job is it anyway?

Most of us have been part of a team where smart, motivated people failed to generate the collaborative give-and-take behavior necessary to make things happen.

In the past few years, I’ve found myself participating in online meetings and ad hoc groups where there was no appointed leader – just a lot of work that needed to get done. The absence of a hierarchical authority giving directives sometimes frustrated us. That gap left us wishing collaborative work was more productive and less flummoxing. I kept thinking there must be a better way — where we all contribute more naturally on group projects.

This year I received my certification in a collaborative leadership program (called the Cooperative Leadership Certification Program) that teaches the Collab methodology. The experience was not just another training that I’d soon forget. I was dropped into a group where engagement was the unfamiliar norm. Within our peer group, we had to work our way into and through a new and shared-power model of thinking, speaking and behaving. Working in such a self-managed environment was an awakening. I now see greater possibilities for working together.

Navigating New Systems of Power

Collab’s teachings focused first on the form and exchange of power within organizations. We looked at how, where and when power flows. And we experienced how shared-power generates results collectively, rather than autocratically, as through traditional authoritarian power.

We now live in a new social era of work, where better ideas are the new currency. And because harnessing group intelligence creates richer ideas, dialogue and dissenting voices are valued. But shared-power dynamics are complex. And for working well as a group, productive interactions and healthy relationships are essential.

The co-creative thinking that accompanies generative group power requires a new structure — to support how teams distribute work, align ideas, and talk together.

The co-creative thinking that accompanies generative group power requires a new structure — to support how teams distribute work, align ideas, and talk together. In that structure, roles are more significant than titles. Work boundaries, scopes and responsibilities are explicit. These definitions implicitly confer ownership and absolute authority upon individuals to decide for themselves how best to get things done.

Such self-organizing feels different, and involves a whole new mindset, skillset and toolset. Collab pulls together integrative practices in an innovative approach to talking precisely about our work. Too few of us are actually trained in conducting dialogue that helps us hold better work conversations.

Separate the “What” from the “How”

In our personal conversations, once we hear “It wasn’t what you said, it was how you said it,” we know someone’s not happy. If I want to be heard, I’ll learn to pay attention to both the What and the How. And it’s not just tone of voice that I’m talking about here, it’s also about manner and expression. Let’s bring this familiar experience into the workplace.

How often have you become entangled in a discussion that seems to be about getting something done, but ends up mired in unresolved interpersonal (organizational) issues?

In every organization, the How and the What address Process and Content. Often these two are unproductively lumped together, so Collab prioritizes the way we talk together. In the training, I came to understand the manner of “How” conversations are processed determines the “What” content that comes out of our conversations.

Collab teaches to first recognize the dialogue arena in which the problem must be addressed. On an enterprise level – and this includes organizations of nearly every size and shape – discussions fall into 7 Work Conversations that repeatedly occur. These conversations are happening all the time, we just don’t see them this way; the same way a fish in a fishbowl doesn’t see the water in which it swims.

Collab’s 7 Work Conversations model chunks-down “organizational systems” into digestible portions.

The 7 Work Conversations are:

Purpose – why we are here, our vision, mission and values
Business model – how our organization exchanges value with its environment
Strategy – how we get from where we are currently towards our intended business model
Governance – how we define all of the shared agreements we need at a pattern level to conduct our work together
Operations – all the daily details that emerge in the process of performing our work / patterns
Interpersonal – the relationships we have with each other
Individual – the dialogue I engage in with myself as I do my work

Each conversation has a life of its own. All 7 Work Conversations seek specific outcomes and are characterized by their own patterns and tensions. Collab trains participants in the use of specific conflict resolution processes that align with each of the 7 Conversations.

For example:
At a staff meeting, Francine makes her case for the company to back her new marketing plan. Frank fiercely argues for his department’s new head count – but he’s actually resentful about funds being redirected from his group to others, like Francine’s. Frank’s issue is a Governance conversation that would rely on (among other steps) the Open Discussion process, while Francine’s issue is Strategy, which would be resolved by using the Integrative Consent process (a collaborative decision-making process).

Make Clarity the Shiny Object

Too often discord arises because participants may not have accurately sorted out the real issue. You might not have the right answer, but recognizing the components that produced tension gives you a better path to bring clarity to the group. When your questions and observations are relevant, timely, and concisely point towards the outcome, you are likely offering a valuable contribution. In addition, honing in on a solution captivates attention.

Collab tools teach people the skills to recognize and keep conversations distinct. (Remember Frank and Francine’s discussion?) Individuals and teams feel empowered as a result. They develop an understanding of the unique tensions contained in each conversation. Once trained, they anticipate what trouble-spots they’re likely to encounter. The goal is to address the tension-causing dynamics so people can resolve issues quickly and conclusively. That perspective not only keeps participants “on topic,” but markedly decreases underlying fear-aggression dynamics that lead to unproductive conflict.

In Summary

Replacing traditional hierarchical management with a self-management model – where power is shared – is new territory for me, and maybe for you, too. Collab’s ruthlessly practical content, structure, and principles impart immediately applicable skills for embracing the How, What and Why (process, structure, and flow) of working collaboratively. It offers a complete operating system of integrative methods blended from new and proven management models for cultivating change-thinking and behavior. And in this new social era of work, changing how we work together is everyone’s job.

I support and participate in the development of technology, networks, and relationships based on empathy, openness and trust. Via, my work includes finding, creating, and sharing opportunities that help us all live with greater richness and confidence, while leveraging human skills and transparency in our lives to meet our needs.

Please connect with me on LinkedIn at

Written by Brian Dooley