Moving towards Collaboration: Lessons from the Field

by Miki Kashtan

How will change come about in the systems that govern our world and our daily lives? Will it take many individuals within the system undergoing massive personal change, as so many believe is necessary?

Systemic Personal change graphic

Does the flow go in only one direction? Or in both?

I’d like to believe that isn’t so, because I just can’t see how waiting for so many individuals to change would create, fast enough, the systemic changes needed to end poverty, transcend violence, or attend, to any meaningful degree, the spiraling resource depletion and climate change we are creating for ourselves and our children. Perhaps this is why, going back to school in the early 90s, I chose sociology as my field, hoping to gain enough knowledge and insight about an earlier version of that very question.

I am grateful for my studies, and I did, indeed, gain significant insight and knowledge that still nourish my learning and writing to this day. And, still, I had never figured out on my own a core insight about organizational function that I learned from colleague and friend Marie Miyashiro: Within organizations, often enough, interpersonal conflict is only a surface manifestation of a structural issue. That was enough to solidify in me a deep and healthy respect for the power of systems to shape individual behavior. With that in place, I found a new horizon in my explorations about creating collaborative organizations.

This insight landed on fertile territory because of another one I also learned in interactions with a friend and colleague, Dominic Barter (one in a very long list of insights I have gathered through interactions with him). It’s the realization that any system that is not set up deliberately with a particular intention or specific values will by default function in the same way that the culture at large functions, simply because we inherit the thoughts, habits, and emotional worlds that we have been raised in unless we actively challenge them.

Some time later I got the final push to begin to speak directly about organizational systems when yet another friend and colleague, Rosa Zubizarreta, sat in on a segment of a teaching event of mine, and excitedly told me I simply had to put in writing what I was saying. She even gave it a name, a term previously unknown to me: organizational literacy. After further nudges from her, I finally wrote a fifteen page document that describes my thinking about the topic: what systems are needed for any organization, authority-based or collaborative, to function well; what is needed to establish such systems in a collaborative framework; and what an individual who wants to operate collaboratively within a non-collaborative organization can do.

And so began a new and conscious phase in my work with organizations: supporting individuals, and especially leaders, within them in identifying which systems are in need of further elucidation, and working with them to set up those systems in the ways most aligned with their purpose and with the ideal of collaboration. (I think it unlikely that I will ever work with an organization where systems are established intentionally to not be collaborative, and I haven’t had the dilemma of choosing, as I’ve always been invited to come in to support more collaboration, not less.)

The Challenge of Shifting to Collaboration on All Levels

When I work with organizations and groups seeking more collaboration or to improve organizational function, I often tend to start with decision-making. I draw this priority from several sources. One is what I learned from Marshall Rosenberg, developer of Nonviolent Communication, who planted in me the seed of how important decision-making was. When talking about creating social change, Marshall pointed to the difference between what he called peripheral and radical change. He illustrated that difference by giving examples of activists focusing resources on affecting this or that decision (peripheral change), only to see it overturned later because of never finding ways of transforming the fundamental structures of how decisions are made and by whom (radical change). A corollary to this was the idea that setting up a clear decision-making system, or making the decision about how decisions are made, was the most important decision for any organization to make. Some time later, I came across the watershed article by Donella Meadows called “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” which provides extensive explanation and illustration of that same insight.

Marshall added a second piece that has strengthened my conviction that if I want to support organizations or teams in moving towards collaboration, looking at how they make decisions is a good first draft. Simply put, Marshall suggested that if any group of people wants to work together in a way that works for all, it’s critical that the decision about decision-making be made collaboratively or consensually. I was heartened to hear that it wasn’t at all necessary for each and every decision to be made consensually. So long as everyone agreed about how the decisions were going to be made, a unilateral decision by a small group of people was entirely consistent with collaborative functioning.

The final support for the high profile I give to decision-making comes from my experience in the field. It’s never failed to happen that people wake up and take note when I mention the basic set of questions the answer to which comprises a decision-making system: Who makes which decisions? Who provides input? Who hears about it? How and when are the decisions made? When speaking to individuals, they tend to take a piece of paper and ask me to repeat the questions. When mentioning them within the context of organizational work, these questions often send a jolt in the room as teams recognize the absence of clarity about decision-making in their own organizational functioning and become conscious of its effects.

I have supported, in various capacities, organizations and groups as small as two people and as big as 7,000; with a revenue stream ranging from a few thousand dollars a year to six billion; with anything from command and control hierarchical structures to anti-authoritarian completely flat groups; with varying functions and purposes, including traditional manufacturing and visionary social transformation. Yet in all of them, where I was looking, I found a commitment to collaboration that encountered significant challenges, many of which were related to lack of clarity about decision-making systems. The more I work with the organizations, the clearer I have become that the shift to collaboration is exquisitely difficult, and that decision-making and leadership have everything to do with it.

With this post, I am launching an ongoing series of reflections on different organizations I have worked with to illustrate with specific details from my own experiments the challenges of restoring the collaborative blueprint that is our evolutionary legacy. Although I have written a fair amount about my work with organizations already, I hope, like me, that you find it instructive to hear the more specific accounts of efforts to establish collaboration in different organizations.

Westvalve: A Personality Challenge Melts through Systemic Input

Westvalve is a name I have given to a manufacturing organization I have worked with recently. I was brought in by the CEO to work primarily with a team of senior executives, just below the CEO level, who were in a state of crisis stemming, as he initially thought, from personal limitations of one of the key leaders in that team. After hearing, in private conversations, from all the individuals involved, I thought I would need to visit their organization several times to attend to the level of difficulty they experienced. As it turned out, that one visit was sufficient, at least for now. As we sat in the room and I asked them the simple, basic questions I outlined above, they rolled up their sleeves to gain understanding of their systemic context. Their main finding was that there was a gap between what they were accountable for and what they had the authority to make decisions about. Their follow up was to enumerate all the kinds of decisions that are necessary for them to get their work done, and whether they were able to make these decisions within the team or it was necessary to involve the CEO in making them. For each of the latter, I invited them to consider what, specifically, they wanted the CEO to do that would support their team function. Of the examples that I was present for the discussion about, it was clear to me that a core issue was a gap between an intention to collaborate and a habit of maintaining control at higher levels relative to where specific action takes place.

Reinventing OrganizationsShortly after finishing my work with Westvalve, I discovered and read Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations. What Laloux set out to do was to identify and then research the workings of organizations that are truly purpose-driven and self-managed. What I love about his work is that he was able to take a number of stories, compelling in themselves, and use them to show something to the world that’s beyond the stories themselves. Had he written the book as a series of stories, it wouldn’t have been so powerful in my opinion; it’s the fact that he arranged bits and pieces of the different stories based on the specific principles that they share in common, which he pulled and articulated, that I found most inspiring. Indeed, his work has been a minor revolution. From near anonymity before self-publishing his book, Laloux has acquired an enthusiastic following and is drowning in opportunities to support organizations wishing to effect change. Since I’m still finding it amazingly difficult to explain to people who are immersed in the current structures the fundamental difference that purpose-driven self-management represents in the world, I am ecstatic that the book exists as a pointer to what it looks like in reality.

Westvalve is quite far from any of the organizations that Laloux researched, although the official commitment to collaboration is there. The gap is squarely in the systems. Laloux names it bluntly as he says in his book that attempting to create the kind of changes he is talking about would be a total waste of time without the active involvement of the CEO and without support from the board. The change amounts to creating systems and processes that leave no control at the top. In other words: the CEO can make no more and no fewer decisions than anyone else in the kinds of organizations that Laloux describes. The difference is fundamental and points, again, to the significance of systems. The result of this utter willing to release control is that the self-managing organizations that Laloux describes boldly do away with most management through the establishment of teams or other mechanisms that keep decisions local and dispersed. As becomes clear through the detailed descriptions, when individuals and teams have full power to do their work and make all the decisions relevant to their work there is simply no necessity of managing from above, at any level. The result? Power isn’t “shared” (implying dividing it) nor are people “empowered” (implying it is “given” from above); rather, everyone has the full power to make all decisions, provided they receive input (never binding) from those affected and those with relevant expertise.

For Westvalve’s CEO, his commitment to collaboration is entirely consistent with telling people what to do. Like the overwhelming majority of leaders, he sees it as his responsibility to make the necessary decisions for moving the organization forward in its trajectory of success. Make no mistake. I completely believe that he, and many others in his place, are indeed truly interested in collaboration even while making unilateral decisions. I sense that, for so many of us, our imagination about what collaboration can be like is undeveloped due to the cultural context in which we have been immersed for so long. In this limited vision, collaboration means, in essence, that people get to say what’s on their mind (certainly an improvement over having no input) and top leadership listens. In these contexts, collaboration is rarely thought about as something to operationalize in detail, to implement within systems, and to apply in all directions.

Still, even within this structure, because the team members did their homework and came up with a list of thirteen clear requests to the CEO, and because he is committed to collaboration, he agreed, and the entire crisis I was called in for was averted. So you understand the significance of this: when I was first called, the crisis was presented as a personality issue with one of the team members, and yet the solution was 100% structural.

I find this immensely hopeful, because it serves as an antidote to the pervasive idea that in order to create systemic change the individuals within the system need to undergo massive personal change. Not so. As Laloux said, and as I saw very clearly at Westvalve, shifting the systemic context within which individuals operate results in changes in individual behavior without necessarily shifting individual attitude. As Laloux cautions us, one individual does need to be at the relevant level of individual development, or the collaborative shift cannot happen. Still, the relief is huge for me upon learning that we don’t have to require thousands of people to undergo massive individual projects they may not be interested in undertaking in order to achieve change. I had suspected so, and yet reading about it and then experiencing it has made all the difference.

Let me repeat, for myself and for you: with the right changes in the systems within which we operate, our behavior can shift, has been proven to shift, without engaging in personal change. (This goes both ways: we can also become mean and cruel with remarkable ease in the right circumstances, as Zimbardo’s experiments in creating prisoners and guards out of his Stanford students attest to.) This is one tiny seed of hope for me that we might turn the tide on where we are, faster than it would take to reach all the billions of people living today to create individual consciousness transformation. Why is this important? Simply because, for me, the shift to collaboration is a vital part of what might support life as we know it in continuing on our planet. I want that life to continue.

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Images: Graphic by Dave Belden. Book cover: Frederic Laloux, publisher Nelson Parker.

2 thoughts on “Moving towards Collaboration: Lessons from the Field

  1. SueHolper

    “…the basic set of questions the answer to which comprises a decision-making system: Who makes which decisions? Who provides input? Who hears about it? How and when are the decisions made? “

    question: Does “Who hears about it?” refer to who hears the input or who hears about the decision-making or who hears the resulting decision?

  2. Monica

    Thank you for the perspective. I’ve been contemplating politics with a Canadian federal election coming up, and wondering how this can work when the leader is not interested in collaboration? And also what is the role for activism at the grassroots level. It does seem like it’s worthwhile trying to effect change at the higher levels, because otherwise activists just get exhausted trying to fight one battle after another.


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