What Makes Collaboration Work?

by Miki Kashtan

Why is collaboration so difficult and tenuous for so many people? Since we are so clearly social animals, wouldn’t we naturally know how to collaborate?

In the last several weeks I have been deeply immersed in learning and teaching about collaboration. I participated in planning and leading the Making Collaboration Real conference, and noticed the immense hunger people had for more tips about how to do collaboration. I attended the Social Venture Network gathering, where I led a breakout session about collaboration, I led one other workshop on collaboration at the Hub SoMa, and I have worked with people struggling to collaborate effectively.

I heard the entire gamut of challenges: from performance reviews to decision making, from interpersonal relationships to leadership styles, from online relationships to in-person group meetings, and from innermost experience to how systems are set up. I now can say more clearly than ever that in today’s workplace effective collaboration is an accomplishment rather than a given. Here are some snippets from my recent weeks with some tips you can use to increase your chances of collaborating successfully.

Full Responsibility

I often hear from people something to the effect that they can’t collaborate with someone because of that person’s actions, choices, or communication. For myself, I hold that if I want to collaborate with someone the responsibility is on me to make that collaboration work. In tough moments I remind myself that I am the one who wants to collaborate, and therefore I want to take the responsibility for making it happen. The less willingness another person has, the more presence, skill, and commitment are required from me. Expecting fairness interferes with the possibility of collaboration. Instead of thinking about what’s fair, I think about what’s possible in any situation given the level of skill and interest that all the players have. Sometimes this may be more than I want to do, in which case I may choose not to collaborate. I still know that it’s my choice, and not the other person’s limitations, which end the collaboration. This orientation has helped me tremendously to the point of carrying no resentment to speak of even in situations that break down.

Making Use of Input

In one of the workshops a senior program officer in a high-profile non-profit organization talked about dreading the experience of bringing her ideas to her team. The reason? They usually don’t like what she says, then she sits and endures their input despite the pain without saying anything to them, and finally she thanks them for the input and makes whatever decision she makes.

One way of transforming such a challenge is to be proactive about the kind of input that we want. For example, when she proposes a plan, she can start by saying that she wants to hear a few people express only what they like about the proposal. Providing specific positive comments supports her in relaxing, and supports the others in connecting more with the reason the proposal is there in the first place. Then she can ask the team to name those areas that they don’t like and for which they have concrete suggestions for improvement. This builds a sense of movement and possibility. Finally, she can ask for any additional concerns for which people may not have a solution. By then enough goodwill gets generated that the group can look at those concerns together and brainstorm suggestions with her. She is then not alone and overwhelmed with so much input without solutions. And everyone has the experience that their input is valued. In that way she leads them to collaborate.

I plan to post the 2nd part of this post tomorrow, with two more tips: how to tell the truth with care, and how to create shared ownership of the outcome.

2 thoughts on “What Makes Collaboration Work?

  1. Anonymous

    Much gratitude to you for this blog entry. I collaborate in many areas of my life. Today I was feeling conflicted about the energy it takes to collaborate. Throughout the day, I was connecting with the judgments I have of myself and another person I am collaborating with. Your comments helped me to get clear that it is my choice in where I want to put my energy and that the skill

  2. Anonymous

    Sometimes I wonder if you are heaven sent, Miki 🙂 Your blog entries seem to hit the spot at the right time: they help me tackle with actual situations/dilemmas/difficulties and offer the perspective I so long for.
    With gratitude,


PLEASE NOTE: If you write a really long comment, and the "Post Comment" button scrolls off the screen, you can get to it by pressing the tab key (on your keyboard) once you've finished typing your comment.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.