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June 12, 2006 » 12:25 am

Beating the Dead Horse of Collaboration: Thinking Versus Doing

My post on the dangers of professionalizing collaboration spurred some good thoughts from Chris Dent, which resulted in some good discussion over IM. Chris wrote:    (KP6)

What one does when collaborating is always more important than collaboration itself.    (KP7)

In the ideal situation, collaboration disappears into the background. If you find yourself enmeshed in the details of how your group should interact, you’ve missed a step.    (KP8)

This is so true, it bears emphasizing. Think about dancing. What could be more collaborative? If you’re thinking about your footwork or your next move as you dance, you are almost certainly not dancing well. On the other hand, how do you become a good dancer without thinking about footwork? More importantly, how do you improve if you’re not self-reflective? Obviously, actually doing it is crucial — and in the end, it’s the most important thing — but there’s still room for self-reflection and discussion. What’s the right balance?    (KP9)

The key is a cycle of reflection and action. You think and you talk, but when it comes to action, you forget all of that, and you simply do. All of that thinking, regardless of how good or how deep it is, is useless if it hasn’t been internalized, if it’s not actionable. If it has been internalized, then thinking or talking about it is not only unnecessary, it just gets in the way.    (KPA)

Chris’s point reminded me of something: People’s best experiences with collaboration often occurs when there’s a sense of urgency. Collaboration following disasters is a great example of this. A big reason for this is that people don’t have the luxury of overthinking a problem, and so if collaboration is good, nothing artificial gets in the way.    (KPB)

In my essay, “Everything Is Known: Discovering Patterns of Emergent Collaboration,” I talk a lot about William Langewiesche‘s book, American Ground and the emergent collaboration that occurred after 9/11. I didn’t get to talk in detail about what happened after the bulk of the recovery effort was complete, although I alluded to it in a previous blog entry. Langewiesche writes:    (KPC)

Safety restrictions were increasing by the day. Ken Holden was philosophical about it, and, as his father might have years before, he played a little word game — something like metaphor-cramming. He said, “When the smoke clears, the nitpickers come out of the closet.” And it was true: the regulators and auditors had arrived in force. Those from the federal safety agency called OSHA were most in evidence; they had been present from the start, and had been largely ignored, but were suddenly multiplying now and gaining the upper hand. They wore bright safety vests and had helmets equipped with red flashing lights. One afternoon, with about a dozen of them in sight, their lights blinking in the hole, Pablo Lopez said to me, “Look! The Martians have landed and they’re communicating!” A few days later one of them asked me to don safety glasses or leave the excavation site, and I remember my surprise when I realized that he was serious. It felt sort of silly, like being required to wear sunblock in a combat zone, but the truth was that the battle was over, and the hole had become a tame place. Lopez’s partner Andrew Pontecorvo explained it to me as a fact of life that he had observed before. He said, “The safer things get, the greater the restrictions.” He was a realist. He shrugged. (198-199)    (KPD)

How do we avoid this trap? One key is to build a frequent, regular cycle of intense collaboration followed by reflection into your design. You can’t do both at the same time, but you don’t want to do one without the other for too long. Deadlines are a pattern that facilitates this behavior.    (KPE)

If your team or community is aware of this cycle, then if someone’s self-reflection is preventing work from happening, you can call him or her on it. Chris suggested having a Horse Is Dead stick, similar in concept to a talking stick. I’m not sure exactly what you would do with the stick yet — beating the person over the head with it sounds right, but this may not go over well with management — but I think he’s on the right track.    (KPF)

If the reason for collaborating is more important than the collaboration itself, then what are the implications for metrics? Do you measure collaboration at all, or do you measure whether or not you’re achieving your mission? The example I often use for this are the 2000-2003 Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal Lakers. No one would point to those teams as models of effective collaboration, but who cares? They won three consecutive championships. Which metric is more important? Well, they may have won three, but they should have won four, and they had to break up the team because they couldn’t get along. The point is that you can’t measure one in isolation from another. You need to measure both, and consider one in the context of the other.    (KPG)

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