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Collaboration and the Team:The Fundamental Unit of Adaptive Organization

We may be entering a new phase of human history- driven by need. The complexity and scale of the challenges we face, to our very existence, let alone our way of life- demands much higher levels of collaboration among individuals, organizations, institutions, and nations. The need is driven by climate change, global pandemics, and the impact of those crises on our economies. If we do not become masters of collaboration, we may not survive.

Steve Taylor in his book The Fall, presents a fascinating synthesis of anthropological findings that suggests that the rise of “ego consciousness” as a dominant feature of human life began about 6000 years ago with a series of environmental desertification disasters around the world. His thesis is that the challenges presented by these disasters cultivated and selected for human beings in which the competitive ego was highly developed.

Previous peoples, indigenous people who still exist in some places lived much closer to the earth. For them, the natural world was intensely alive and captivating. The earth was considered sacred, and it appears widespread war and the suppression of women were not common features of life in that time. The rise of the ego dominated human being has given us science, the arts, our current culture for better or for worse. It is marked by a feverish intellectual competitiveness and a strong tendency to solve the problems of growth and conflict through competition and by going to war against our neighbors.

On a more local level I see my clients consistently presented with problems that require increased degrees of internal and external collaboration. A current example is the crisis Hawai’i faces as our primary industry; hospitality has been derailed. We desperately need to create new industries, businesses, and employment. One of the biggest obstacles has been a lack of trained people to staff these new industries. There is a potential system, already in place in Hawaii called “Career Pathways”. I say potential system because what exists is a wide variety of organizations in the government and non-profit sectors which already receive significant funding to help prepare people for new employment.

This potential system includes the State Department of Education, University of Hawaii at Manoa, the Community Colleges, and the American Job Centers. Each of these entities contains resources that can be aligned to create a pathway to develop trained workers. The system has for instance produced CNA’s for the healthcare system and financial advisors for the banking industry. This potential system is designed to be driven by business sector partnerships which identify the job types that are required by their industry, and then the other elements of Career Pathways can engage to provide training, beginning even in our high schools and then continued through the community colleges and, ultimately U.H. Manoa if appropriate.

What is required is for a business sector to become organized enough that it can identify a job type based on a plan for that industry’s future, and then to engage with the other elements of Career Pathways. Here is where the required collaboration falls apart. So far there is insufficient collaboration in the business sectors to drive the system as a customer. And second, the various organizations that comprise the potential elements of Career Pathways tend to each go their own way. There is no overarching, organizing entity which connects one part of Career Pathways to the other parts. There is no one who has ultimate authority and responsibility over this potential system, and as such an important potential asset for Hawai’i’s future is not fully engaged.

This is not an uncommon pattern in the organizational world. Collaboration requires consideration, the hard work of understanding the perspectives of other people with whom we need to collaborate, the willingness to sacrifice control over our “own” entity, and the persistence to keep at the work of creating collaborative structures that integrate the work of different units and organizations in a common pursuit.

I want to share a perspective on why collaboration is so difficult and then explain how the use of teams can cultivate the competency of collaboration in an organization. What has really amazed me is how difficult collaboration is for human beings. It does not come to us naturally. To understand why this is, it is necessary to define the word. I think of collaboration as the deepest of four kinds of relationship:





When interviewing people as part of an organizational assessment, people almost always cite the same one-word problem: communication. If there is dysfunction in an organization, it is a guarantee that there are people not talking to each other productively. Sometimes the greatest difficulty in solving a problem is to get the right people in the same room really saying what they mean and listening to each other.

If they come to understand each other a bit, they might move on to the second level by coordinating their activities, which basically means working in a way that involves some thought about how what they do impacts the other. This is the beginning of the idea that other people, internal or external are our customers, that we may owe them something as we do our work.

I have encountered significant levels of resistance to this idea. The idea that we owe somebody something, that we need to meet their standards, requires that we see things from their point of view, and this is not something the ego mind is able to do. I have come to see that there are two kinds of human beings: those that can and are willing to see things from another’s point of view, and those who are not.

This shift to seeing “we” instead of “me” all the time is very irritating to the ego and is only worth it if some other part of us, something deeper and higher recognizes the value of making that shift. This shift is the beginning of the idea of synergy and interdependence. Here we consider the possibility that, if we work together properly, we might get better outcomes more easily.

If this work continues, we may get to the next level: cooperation, which is more than just thinking about the activities of another and adjusting the timing or some other feature of our work. With cooperation, there is more real time consideration of how my work impacts the work of others. With cooperation I periodically adjust and improve how I do what I do to improve our common work. When we cooperate, we talk to each other more, solve problems more together, and even make some decisions together.

Collaboration goes much deeper. In order to collaborate, two individuals or units or organizations must change, often significantly, how they work in order to create a new way of working that is significantly more effective. With collaboration we seek much higher levels of synergy. With this new way of working there is an increased level of interdependence and need to change. Here we encounter four of the big reasons why collaboration does not succeed.

1. We may not believe that collaboration will produce valuable synergy. We may not believe it will produce any value at all. And sometimes the work of collaboration is not worth the potential value.

2. We may not trust our potential collaborators to be able to or to be willing to do their part consistently.

3. We may not want to change how we work. Thinking beyond the boundaries of “my job” is more work, harder work, and we may not want to put in the added effort.

4. And the big one is, we do not want to give up our sense of control.

Learning to collaborate is not an easy thing for people, it does not come naturally. We have to overcome the tendencies of our ego, learn to trust and to value what comes when we become a wholehearted part of a greater whole.

From “Me” to “We”

It is important to recognize that people go through a developmental process to become effective collaborators and team members. This process is clearly described by Dave Logan, John King, & Halee Fischer-Wright in their book “Tribal Leadership”. They provide an excellent model that describes the transition that people go through from dysfunctional separation to integrated team member.

Tribal Leadership Stage

Stage Mood Theme

1 Despairing Hostility “Life sucks”

2 Apathetic Victim “My life sucks”

3 Lone Warrior “I ‘me great (and you’re not)”

4 Tribal Pride “We’re great (and they’re not)”

5 Innocent Wonderment “Life is great, it is amazing what we can do."

This really is a brilliant model. It depicts the stages a person goes through from being a dysfunctional misfit at stage 1 to an effective team player at stage 5. We know that the person whose life script revolves around the idea that life sucks is not somebody we want working with us. It is actually an improvement when they realize that it is their life that sucks. Then they have to get over feeling like a victim and get their act together. If they succeed in finding a role and becoming effective at it, they graduate to where their script is “I’m great and you’re not”. This tells us a lot about the role of the ego. The ego can actually help us get our life in order to some degree. It will do that in order to feel superior. Many of the features of organization are designed to engage the ego and provide it a game that it can excel at. We give it a job description, we hopefully keep score somehow, we give it feedback, we give it acknowledgement, we give it compensation. Our organization are built to engage the ego to get people disciplined enough to fit in productively with the organization.

“I ‘me great and you’re not”, however as an attitude does not create a person who is any good to work with. A purely ego driven person is a pain to work with, and in general, they create a lot of management issues. They are high maintenance. So, we want to get to the next level which is “We’re great and they are not”. Unfortunately, sometimes this “we” takes the form of a clique inside a group, and the “they” are people in their own work group. This is where team building comes in. In working as a team, we learn to work together with a common purpose. We learn to see things from another’s point of view, we learn to make sacrifices for the good of the team.

The interesting thing is the ego dynamic does not go away. Often, we find one effective team in an organization, let us say a sales team, complaining that they are great, and the service team is not. Or the team of employees is great, and management is not. The work of level 4 is first about developing a viable, functional “we” with a work team, and then expanding the “we” to include other people and teams that are part of a common process or system. Ultimately the goal is to get to where the “we” includes all of the people that must work together in a common purpose.

Anyone who has worked on themselves or tried to help others change knows that these changes, from one level of “Tribal Leadership” to the next is not easy. These changes involve a shift in world view and self-perception and require persistence, and discipline to achieve. The shifts from level three to four is most publicly plaid out in with the “star player” who must learn to work as part of a team. Some stars just cannot make that shift., It all has to be about them. I have seen this same dynamic repeatedly in the world of work with the star player who is often a strong salesperson, business developer, or deal maker. The organization comes to believe they cannot function without this person and they cut them more and more slack, exempt them from more and more organizational requirements and boundaries until they become source of dissonance and disruption. Quite often, after finally terminating such a person, the remaining people find that they can function even better without the star and are very relieved to have them gone.

So how do people learn the discipline of collaboration? In my experience, the best way is to learn to be part of a team. In a team we learn to commit to a common purpose, we learn to accept our individual accountability and our boundaries. We learn communicate, we learn what our strengths are and how to contribute them, and we learn what our weaknesses are and how to engage others to compensate.

The Fastest Road to Collaboration

Over my 35 years in the organization development business I have seen a variety of methods developed to improve organizational functioning, there have been Quality Circles, Total Quality Management, Self-Managed Teams, Six Sigma, Organizational Redesign, and the Agile approach to implementation. The one thing they all have in common is the use of teams. Why teams?

It seems that teams of up to 9 people are a natural unit of collaboration for human beings. The challenge is to reconcile the value of diversity with the need for coherence. The effectiveness of the organization depends on the degree of coherence achieved in integrating the diverse human qualities required. This dynamic can be observed within an individual. An individual who is internally coherent is more successful in life- they are not fighting themselves, and they appear to others as having integrity and trustworthiness. Similarly, coherence is essential in creating an effective team. The purpose of a team is integrating the people who have the different qualities and orientations required for a common mission.

We build organizations in order to harness more people to a common purpose and gain the advantages of scale and complementarity. As the world has become increasingly complex and work more specialized, this value has increased. Complementarity provides the possibility of engaging people with different competencies to a common pursuit. It is this goal and challenge of complementarity that presents the need for a special social requirement for success, and that is trust.

This means that potential conflict is built into any well-designed team. The challenge to the team leader is to make that conflict productive. And there is a valuable by product of working in a team. We learn how to be a good team member. We learn how to collaborate. We learn to see from another’s point of view, we learn to adjust our behavior to fit team norms, we learn when to lead and when to follow, and we get to see the magic that is possible working in a fully functional team.

The need for coherence in diversity only increases as organizations grow. The larger the organization, the greater the likelihood of separation, alienation, lack of productive relationship required for success. In my experience this dynamic plays itself out at three levels of functionality.

1. At the lowest level, there is chaos. The forces within the individual, or the self-oriented urges of individuals on a team or in an organization play out unrestrained by structure, discipline, or shared purpose resulting in devastating waste of energy, time, and resources.

2. At the next developmental level, at which individual self-interest is harnessed in pursuit of a common goal, there is more productive use of energy, time and resources, but conflict abounds, between labor and management, between high producers and low producers, between sales and service, across any major boundary of diversity in the team or organization.

3. At higher levels of performance whether individual, team or organization, the diversity present is integrated in a consistently coherent focus on the mission and conditions required for success.

'In my experience, the best way to evolve from level one to level three is through the use of the team structure. The team structure provides a concrete and flexible mechanism to effect change and improvement. Focusing on the individual is too small a unit and focusing on the organization as a whole is too unwieldy to affect change in something as complex as collaboration.

For more information on Collaboration and Teams see

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