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Your Safety Zone or Mine? A Collaboration Story

When we receive communication from other people that does not support our safety zone, most of us will either fight or flight. The challenge is every person's safety zone has been developed by unique experiences, beliefs, values and knowledge.
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Some of the most inspiring stories in the world are the result of a diverse group of people, companies, governments and non-profits coming together to create solutions for the greater good of nature and people. When time permits, feedback is required, expertise is needed and impact is great... collaboration is the way to go.

The most important first step to any collaboration is identifying that every person and every company has a certain way of doing things and no one way is more right or wrong than the other. If I want to get from my office to my favorite lunch spot, I have several routes I can take. I may drive, walk or bike. The outcome of getting to the destination is the same. Yet if I am traveling with another person and they want to walk on the day I am wearing 4" heels and want to drive, one of us we will probably have to compromise if we will be going together. In this example, both method and circumstances of current situation play a role in the outcome.

Here is an example of what happens when the crucial first step of identifying differences is skipped.

Two companies want to collaborate with each other: a boutique consulting firm and workspace cooperative. Jennifer from the consulting firm proposed an idea to Michael, who represented the workspace. He loves the idea and proclaims, "Let's do it." Both companies will benefit from successful implementation of the idea yet it never made it pass the planning stage.

In the case of Jennifer and Michael, sorting and safety were the issues that challenged the collaboration. In order for Jennifer to work comfortably she needed details -- in fact, her ability to proceed forward depended on it. Michael, however, did not work comfortably with details. His comfort came through a path of the least commitment. In his experience, throwing a date on a calendar was an effective way to stay on target without the commitment of who is doing what to get there. Michael and Jennifer were also challenged by "sorting" issues. Michael viewed Jennifer's ways of doing things as being similar to his. Jennifer on the other hand saw they were completely different. After several attempts to share this with Michael and alter how she was working, she ultimately gave up when she could see the cost of time and effort would far outweigh the results. Is there anything wrong with either Michael or Jennifer's methods? It is hard to argue that unless their methods are not repeatedly producing desired results. Is there an opportunity for them to work together in the future? Yes, but before that happens they both have to be able to clearly communicate their "safety zones" to the other and figure out if there is opportunity to co-create a new safety zone together.


It is a primal human instinct to communicate from a point of safety. When we receive communication from other people that does not support our safety zone, most of us will either fight or flight. The challenge is every person's safety zone has been developed by unique experiences, beliefs, values and knowledge. In order to work effectively together we need to recognize this from beginning to save a lot of time, frustration and heartache.

To insure the success of your collaboration story here are four tips to follow:

  1. Shake, Break and Overtake Communication Safety Zone -- Be prepared to bend, rethink things from someone's else point of view and be vulnerable for the sake of your collaboration. Respectful considerations create thought-provoking debates that ultimately advance the quality of the collaboration.
  2. Detail the Distinctions -- Detail the differences and similarities between team member's point of views on solutions and problems. Understand there is a big difference between an understanding and agreement and know when each is in place.
  3. Assign Roles and Tasks -- No one wants to be on ship without a captain behind the wheel and/or well trained engineers in the engine room. Task and role assignments are required for all collaborations. Make roles assignments based on individual interest and experience. Make task assignments based on order of importance. It is easier to get support on mundane tasks if the big tasks are covered.
  4. Set and Celebrate Smaller Milestones -- The bigger the impact of the collaboration the harder it may be to reach the goal so set smaller "easy to measure" milestones along the way. As momentum builds so does trust and your ability to keep the collaboration going while simultaneously attracting additional support.

Author's Note: There is value in reading this post twice; from a business perspective and a personal relationship perspective. You will find what prevents us from working effectively together is also relevant to what makes some relationships more difficult than others.