When collaboration isn’t the best option

March 25, 2014 by  

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Andrea writes: Last fall, I saw Vivien Twyord speak, promoting her book The Power of Co about the preconditions for collaboration. Vivien is a seasoned collaboration facilitator, who works to solve large, seemingly unsolvable projects like local communities and electrical companies deciding where to put unwanted towers. She has used her vast experience to bridge years of distrust and paralyzing inertia and make collaborative decisions.
The first and most powerful thing Vivien taught me is that collaboration can sometimes cause more problems than it solves. Her key take-away lesson for me was that you need to understand the difference between a simple problem, a complicated situation, and a deeply complex issue. Making the right initial diagnosis can make all the difference.

A simple problem has few factors and the outcome is predictable. Cause leads directly to effect, and the answer is knowable. Example, your car needs gas to run. If you run out of gas, your gas gauge will light up. The solution doesn’t require a collaborative intervention to find the solution.

A complicated situation has many factors but the solution is still predictable. Cause leads directly to effect and the answer is still knowable. A noise in your car that you describe to your mechanic, but aren’t sure where it’s coming from, is more complicated than a gas gauge on Empty. Still, talking to an expert – in this case a good mechanic — would be a much more efficient use of time than initiating a collaborative conversation on potential solutions.

A complex issue: The solution or outcomes are not known. For example, changing the behaviour patterns of car users and encouraging a bike lane in a divided community has a number of complex issues, environmental, safety, distrust, misinformation, cultural convention etc. An expert might be able to suggest potential solutions and therefore contribute to a good outcome but a simple answer to a complex problem is bound to create unintended reactions and responses.

Complex systems have interdependent agents. Removing one piece or inserting another will not fix the problem or create a sustainable solution. A complex lens allows us to see a system with underlying connections and values that can both nullify big changes (see Senge “the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back”) or have a large response to small changes (see the power of butterfly wings flapping).

In her talk Vivien stressed the point over and over: Do not collaborate if your problem is simple or even complicated – it will frustrate and exhaust you and your system. What’s worse it will build distrust and undermine the faith or willingness to collaborate when necessary. Even if the problem is complex, if you think the problem is simple, i.e. you are pretty sure you know the right answer before you start, then collaboration will be a frustrating, drawn out experience and harmful to the project.

If your problem seems intractable, unknowable, and maybe even unfixable, you need to look up Vivien and learn the Power of Co.

Another view of simple, complicated, & complex is the Cynefin model, an interesting framework developed by Dave Snowden, which also includes a 4th possibility the Chaotic. Go there if you dare!

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