Collaboration remains the flavour of the month for many workplaces, but under the fashionable status of words like collaboration and innovation lies a key question, ‘How can groups of people to work together more effectively?’ We’d like to share a couple of thoughts on this from our experience over the last seven years.

At Polykala, a number of our facilitators have a background in the creative arts, in particular, improv theatre, dance and music. We look to the arts for insights and inspiration on what collaboration feels like and types of behaviours it requires. We feel the arts, especially mediums that celebrate extempore and improvisation, can be instructive and puzzling. How can a group of people appear to seamlessly communicate in the midst of chaos? How come their ideas seem to materialise effortlessly; as if they’re reading each other’s mind, intuiting their way forward?

Here’s our first insight: we see collaboration as an adaptive process. By adaptive, we mean that we’re going to have to give something up in order to move forward, make space for something new. Adaptation is also an energetically costly process, it requires numerous attempts. Collaboration requires letting go of attitudes, frustrations, control, having all the answers… and the list goes on. When we’re seeking to create something new, our existing ‘know-how’ won’t suffice, our pre-baked solutions will be a liability. Ceding ‘knowing’ may well be the crucial first step toward fruitful collaboration as it creates room for something that isn’t already which is the seed of possibility.

Our second insight is that collaboration as a by-product of behaviours rather than an end in and of it itself. Collaboration isn’t something in-and-of-itself, it emerges when other primary features are in play. Think of it this way, finish this sentence, ‘Collaboration is the by-product of…’

Over the past few years, we’ve worked with a wonderful, eclectic range of clients. Here are four sentence endings we reckon capture the bulk of the wisdom we’ve been exposed to:

  1.     Shared Purpose (…that we want the same thing)
  2.     Discretionary Effort (…that we go the extra mile)
  3.     Accountability (…that we do what we say we will do)
  4.     Vulnerability (…that I don’t always need to know the answers)

All four of these sentence endings have a common theme. They are social behaviours rather than individual virtues. The feeling of collaboration is a by-product of investing in relationships. The ‘collaborative vibe’ is unlikely to show up if these values (shared purpose, discretionary effort, accountability and vulnerability) are absent. If prioritised, they can be honoured and practised and, over time, become part of the water supply. Watch any accomplished improvisational theatre troupe, sports team or organisation you respect and you will see it, feel it, and admire it. 

This leads us to the next question: ‘How do we put these ideas around collaboration into practice?’ Collaboration requires that we pause and, at times, we might need to ask difficult questions of each other. In response, we give feedback generously in the hope that doing so will clear some of the blockages that might be preventing us from doing our best work.

Our Adaptive Teams program has two key focal points. We use Adaptive Leadership as the unifying set of ideas that provides working groups with a shared understanding and language for the social dynamics, these are ever present – the interplay between authority and leadership, status quo and change. Secondly, we take participants through a set of activities, including the Harvard Peer Consultation process, in order to give them an experience (and this is important) of working in a collaborative team that they can capture and carry into their working environment. Combining a strong theoretical framework with robust experiential activities helps brings ideas to life. More importantly, participants can experience the effect of articulating shared purpose (and deviations from it) or notice the effect going the extra mile has on staff morale. 

Collaboration is, at its heart the process of letting go of tightly held certainties, holding onto non-negotiable values and experimenting with new ways of working socially. It is the byproduct of investing in relationships that prioritise vulnerability and accountability.