Good conversations change the way people think and act.
When people acknowledge each other as people it becomes easier for them to overcome their differences.
Yet many leaders are more focused on events and publicity than on the slow and challenging task of consensus building. This is often because the complex environment of a collaboration process can feel threatening to many participants.
When we feel threatened, a very human reaction is often to criticize the process or content (when one is not in charge) or to tighten control (when one is in charge). And the larger the project, the more abundant the conflicts, disagreements, vested interests and vast difference in skills, perspective and cultures can be.
It does not sound comfortable does it?
On the other hand, events and marketing often have more manageable, linear, planning processes and outcomes. As a result, leaders often feel more comfortable with regards to their ability to control events rather than their ability to bring together groups of people who do not yet know or trust each other.
Containing the uncontainable
In fact, consensus building is sheer hard work, especially when many different expectations need to be met.
A solid process architecture - the design of the overall preparation, implementation and review process for a collaboration initiative - is a way to contain spoken and unspoken expectations. Such a process should include a sequence of informal as much as formal communication events. Informal events include one-on-one engagement conversations and small workshops while larger events bring stakeholders together into structured conversations which are designed to lead to a desired outcome.
Only well designed collaboration leads to the envisaged outcomes.
Building trust, keeping participants informed and showing appreciation for expertise all contribute to success. When people are able to see what will happen when, who has which role, and who takes over which responsibility, they can relax enough to move forward in a consolidated way.
Each little step is therefore important.
However, although a guiding structure should help to prevent chaos, it should also allow enough freedom for the different forms of communication required by collaboration.
Envision the process architecture as a guiding structure, almost like a balustrade that keeps a complex set of actors relatively stable and within an action frame understood by all participants.
When people feel contained, yet free, they are able to think and work together with increasing ease.
Engaging our differences
Collaboration requires an acknowledgement of the differences between people.
It invites us to transform our differences into progress.
As a result, we are better off getting the 'hot spots' on the table as soon as possible, understanding how a system of actors operates, and seeing where the lines of conflict are as well as where alliances can be found.
Understanding our differences is a prerequisite for our next step - consensus-building. When we understand the why and the how of each other's differences we are also able to see the story and the logic behind each other's positions.
At the same time, there is always a common ground which we can access. Acknowledging our shared humanity allows us to meet our differences with more ease and openness.
In this way, recognizing both our shared humanity and our differences, open a pathway to at times compromise and at times find a better and new solution.
Jointly we create our future
We build the future by living the future now.
Ghandi's philosophy that "we need to be the change we want to see in the world" carries a deep truth. This means as leaders, we need to operate - right from the start - in exactly the way we would like each collaborating actor to operate.
In addition, every step in a collaboration process needs to reflect the future we want to create. Keep the agreed-on goal high on the agenda. When conflicts arise it is our emotional connection with a goal which brings us people back on track.
A compass to guide us
What can we do when we are in an environment where people focus on public events and don't understand our talk about process, cohesiveness, dialogue or relationship building?
We can introduce the Collective Leadership Compass as a quality check for good process design.
When we start designing road-maps for high quality collaboration processes, we can use a compass to more consciously plan both the structure and open dialogue needed to take us further. This is because the dimensions and aspects of the Compass allows us to uncover and share design concepts with each other which point to all the necessary elements of successful collaboration.
Here are some questions we could ask in order to engage with each dimension:
- Is the purpose of the participatory strategy development clear to everybody?
- Do we sufficiently empower people to participate in creating a joined strategy?
- Is the outcome clearly defined and are the implications transparent?
- Have we designed a solid process architecture that makes it clear to everybody how the strategy will emerge?
- Have we built a cohesive system of actors with the necessary expertise and do they feel sufficiently acknowledged?
- Have we created circles of engagement that allow people to work on concrete results - leading up to the final draft strategy?
- Do we bring in new and creative ways of seeing or solving the current challenges, or overcoming differences?
- Have we ensured that best practices and up-to date scientific and experiences based knowledge informs the strategy development?
- Are we prepared to take the risk of not being able to control the outcome?
- Do we understand the sensitivities of certain stakeholders?
- Do we know what people are passionately about and do we take this into account?
- Do we plan dialogue settings that allow different stakeholders to understand each other's viewpoints?
- Do we plan dialogue settings that allow stakeholders to move toward a culture of thinking together?
- Are we aware of all differences and conflicts among stakeholders?
- Have we built a structure of iterative learning into our process design?
- Have we taken the wider national and international context into account that influences our strategy?
- Do all participating stakeholders feel sufficiently supported to contribute?
- Do we communicate how the strategy will contribute to our societal and the global development?
We would love to read your responses and learn from them.
Petra is the author of the book "The Art of Leading Collectively".