Sunday, September 4, 2011

Conflict and Collaboration

Good Morning
“And the beat goes on……………….”

We talk a lot in the arts about collaboration; about working together for mutual gains; about being smart and leveraging the strength of our numbers; about unified fronts and high tides that raise all the boats.

There is no shortage of articles, chapters, lists and books about collaboration – including the elements necessary for its success.  Experts talk about the need for potential collaborators to be flexible in their approaches and open to different ways to get to the same goals.  They urge everyone to get to the point where they are willing to disagree but still cleave to the goal of partnership and working in concert.  They talk about really listening to your co-collaborators and earnestly trying to be empathetic  and sympathetic to everyone’s positions and concerns.  They admonish us to make sure there is communication and transparency.  They talk about the need to develop joint decision making protocols that address everyone’s needs.  They offer advice about defining everyone’s role as clearly as they can so there are no misconceptions or confusion.  They talk about devising – up front – ways to resolve disputes and handle conflicts when they inevitably arise.  They emphasize respect and courtesy and common sense and going the extra distance to give the benefit of the doubt.   They talk about shared passion and trying hard to find the intersections of shared philosophy.  And they insist on the drafting of clear, mutually acceptable agendas about desired outcomes and objectives. They talk about humor and humanity and the need to focus on the end game and big picture.  They talk about compromise.  They talk about creating and nurturing supportive ecosystems.  They emphasize community. 

And invariably they talk about trust.  About letting go of territoriality, and past transgressions; about forgiving and forgetting real and imagined slights, and somehow ignoring all the water under the bridge.

Sounds easy enough, right? 

We know what has to be done then.  Like the Nike ads: “Just do it” – right? 

Why then is it so hard in so many situations to make collaboration work?  Why can’t we just “do it”? Which of those elements above that the experts say are essential to successful collaboration are (sometimes anyway) just too hard to get to?  What has to happen for people to let go of their reasons for consciously or unconsciously failing to give real collaboration a chance?   Where do you lay the blame when collaboration simply fails?  Is it sometimes that institutions and organizations are just too competitive to cooperate; is it because they are just too steeped in doing what they do one way / their way?  Is a long legacy of conflict between interests sometimes just insurmountable?  Or is it that sometimes the individuals involved simply cannot get over past transgressions?  Are some collaborations doomed because of the histories of personality clashes?  Is the culture of conflict between groups and people sometimes just too ingrained to be ignored – despite the upfront lip service paid to commitment to the idea of working closely together? 

Or is all of that just excuses and nonsense, and is it actually as simple as putting all that baggage aside and making the commitment to make it happen?  We’re adults after all.  Why would we allow childish behavior to derail our success or limit our viable options?  Is it then, in the final analysis, all about an act of will? Talk is cheap.  How do you make that work?   If it is human nature that when there is simply too much history among some people, too much water under the bridge that the restoration of the trust needed to make the collaboration work – simply cannot be there - what do you do in that situation?   When an elephant is in the room, you can’t always just pretend it isn’t there.  When historical conflict remains alive, you can’t always just wish it away.  When principals are at opposite ends to each other, you can’t always assume they will be able to move off their positions.  And you ignore it at the peril of what you are trying to collaborate on.

What do you do when there are historical conflicts between organizations and people wherein very likely both sides have legitimate complaints, reservations and difficulty working with the other --but when a working coalition and collaboration is clearly called for and in the best interests of all the parties?  And is that phenomenon far more common that we recognize?  And do we not too easily gloss over it?

Rather than rushing to embrace the strategies that the experts say are essential for positive collaboration, should one of the first steps in forming a collaboration, be to look for the hidden (or not so hidden) conflicts and walls and recognize and accept that those obstacles are simply not going to go away, and that they must be dealt with before you can move to install the elements that will foster and nurture real collaboration?

How do you deal with that?   How do you engage those who are perhaps on opposite sides of a table to be forthright and frank in identifying those tensions that might keep the collaboration from working?  How do you promote the honest dialogue that might be necessary to get beyond whatever it is that might compromise the work of, and reason for creating the collaboration in the first place?  How do you position opposites to accept that tensions are more often than not two way streets?  Who brokers those intersections?  Who mediates?  And who decides and at what point, whether a harmonious peace can exist?  How do you dissect agendas without undue criticism?  How do you avoid accusations and finger pointing?  How do you keep acrimony at bay?  How, in short, can we recognize early on the signs that a potential collaboration may not work, and what can we then do to address that challenge?

Collaboration can be enormously valuable, and as often as not, is critical in succeeding in some stated goal that impacts a larger group or interest.  Sometimes it works naturally and easily. Other times it can be fraught with difficulties and barriers and fail.  The more we know about the particulars of any given attempt, can see the challenges clearly, and are willing to take risks to get to the point where everyone is truly on the same page, the better we might be able to make the concept of collaboration work for us. 

I think we know what makes a collaboration work, but I doubt we really know nearly enough about the dynamics of what makes collaboration fail, particularly in our sector, and what might be done about that. 

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.