“Collaboration is not about gluing together existing egos. It's about the ideas that never existed until after everyone entered the room.”
Kahane, A. (2017). Collaborating with the enemy: How to work with people you don’t agree with or like or trust. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
I originally wrote this piece as a guest blogger for EduMatch on July 3, 2023. You can get the original version here: https://www.edumatch.org/post/what-is-collaboration-getting-beyond-cooperation
THE MEAT (The Main Idea)
These words challenge us to go beyond a simplistic understanding of collaboration and explore its transformative potential. At its core, collaboration is simply the act of working with someone, but its true power lies in the various levels of engagement and the psychological safety it fosters. The quote suggests that collaboration creates a dynamic environment where new and innovative ideas can emerge. It implies that the act of collaboration itself generates fresh insights and possibilities that wouldn't have existed if each person had stayed in their own separate space or role.
THE CHEESE (Added Depth)
Digging deeper, how can we essentially score a collaboration? How do we know if collaboration is healthy or harmful? In my 20-plus years of working on teams, at times, I have worked alongside people and never felt safe enough to give 100% of my ideas. It felt like there was a barrier, a hesitancy to fully express myself. It was a collaboration on the surface, but lacking the psychological safety and deeper engagement necessary for true innovation to thrive. I wasn’t able to give all of me and that more than likely kept the other person closed off as well. On the other hand, there have been times when the floodgates of ideas opened, and I felt a sense of freedom and trust within the collaborative partnership. These were the moments when collaboration reached its full potential, eclipsing mere cooperation. Ideas flowed without fear of criticism or idea theft, as trust and mutual respect formed the foundation of our collaboration. So, how do we differentiate between these types of collaboration? By definition, both scenarios meet the basic definition of collaboration. However, it is essential to recognize that there are certain elements that go into healthy collaborations. Every person enters collaborative experiences asking these questions:
By considering these fundamental questions, we can gain profound insights into the health and dynamics of collaboration. Evaluating the presence or absence of psychological safety, trust, and the unique value that each person brings to the table allows us to gauge the depth and potential of a collaborative partnership. Moreover, Adam Kahane's insightful words remind us that collaboration is not merely about merging existing egos, but rather about generating ideas that never existed until everyone entered the room. This notion brought me to the thought that collaboration operates on different levels, ranging from surface-level cooperation to deep engagement that leads to the creation of novel and transformative ideas. Here’s another way we can evaluate our collaborative partnerships.
Level 1 Collaboration: Transactional Cooperation. This level represents basic cooperation where individuals work next to each other, fulfilling their shared tasks. However, it lacks the necessary elements of trust and psychological safety for open idea-sharing and deep engagement.
Level 2 Collaboration: Mutual Participation. This level signifies active engagement and participation, where individuals feel a greater sense of safety to contribute their ideas and perspectives. There is a growing sense of trust within the collaborative space, signaling a shift from transactional cooperation to a more inclusive and participatory approach.
Level 3 Collaboration: Collective Intelligence. This level captures the essence of deep collaboration, where trust, openness, and mutual respect are at their highest. Participants not only contribute their ideas but also leverage the collective intelligence of the group to co-create innovative solutions. It is in this realm that the true power of collaboration emerges, unlocking the full potential of the group's genius. By understanding and recognizing these different elements and levels of collaboration, we can assess and cultivate environments that foster psychological safety, trust, and innovation. As educators and professionals, it is vital for us to strive toward creating collaborative spaces that promote the growth and success of all stakeholders in the education community.
THE OLIVES (A Surprising Element)
Let’s explore a powerful example of the highest level of collaboration; a level 3 collaborative partnership that broke boundaries to find collective intelligence. The collaboration between The Walt Disney Company and Marvel Studios is one great example. This extraordinary coming together of two seemingly disparate worlds. On one hand, you had Disney, an entertainment giant known for enchanting princesses, magical castles, and heartwarming tales of imagination. On the other hand, you had Marvel, a powerhouse in the realm of superheroes, origin stories filled with tragedy, intensity, and larger-than-life battles.
However, it was precisely these differences that made the collaboration between Disney and Marvel so compelling. As they embarked on this new journey together, they recognized that their unique strengths could complement each other in unexpected ways. It was in the blending of Disney's storytelling magic and Marvel's superhero mythology where "collective intelligence" began to emerge.
Through their collaboration, Disney and Marvel tapped into the power of synergy. The contrast between princesses and superheroes, castles and destruction, created an exciting tension that fueled creativity and innovation. Disney's expertise in crafting heartfelt narratives and creating immersive worlds merged with Marvel's ability to craft complex characters and thrilling action sequences. Imagine for one second one group didn’t feel safe enough to share an idea. Or fearful that an idea would be struck down for being too out of the box. We wouldn’t have new storylines of the Guardians of The Galaxy, or the multiverse of Doctor Strange. Or my favorite, Thor: Ragnarok.
This convergence of two distinct creative forces allowed them to beat their individual limitations and explore uncharted territories. As they bridged the gap between princesses and superheroes, they discovered a shared vision that extended beyond their respective realms. It was the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that truly exemplified the power of their collaboration.
Now envision the extraordinary potential of such collaboration within our schools and classrooms. Collaboration, unfortunately, is often hindered in the educational context due to concerns of personal vulnerability and the fear that our ideas might be appropriated by others. We grapple with questions of psychological safety, trust, and the value each individual brings to the collaborative process.
In the world of education, the stakes are high. We want our classrooms to be psychologically safe spaces where educators can freely express their ideas, take risks, and experiment with innovative teaching approaches. We yearn for a collaborative environment where trust is nurtured, and each participant's unique contributions are valued and respected. Just as Disney and Marvel overcame their stark differences—the enchanting world of princesses and castles colliding with the realm of action-packed superhero adventures—education, too, can witness the transformative power of collaboration. By addressing the three fundamental elements of healthy collaboration, we can break through the barriers that inhibit us and unlock the true potential of collective intelligence. Psychological safety forms the bedrock of fruitful collaboration. In safe spaces, educators feel secure to share their ideas, ask questions, and engage in open dialogue without the fear of judgment or negative repercussions. Trust becomes the currency that underpins collaborative relationships, fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect and support. Moreover, recognizing and appreciating the value each individual brings to the table fuels the collaborative process. When we acknowledge that everyone has something worthy to contribute, we invite diverse perspectives, knowledge, and experiences into the collaborative space. It is through this amalgamation of talents and ideas that the true magic of collaboration emerges.
In our classrooms and schools, let us dare to imagine a transformative landscape of education. Picture a place where educators find solace in psychological safety, where intentions are trusted, and where the power of collective intelligence propels us forward. Yet, to realize this vision, we must confront the uncomfortable truths that hinder collaboration. We must question our fear of vulnerability, grapple with the concern of uncredited ideas, and overcome the uncertainty that clouds trust. By fearlessly addressing these barriers, we pave the way for authentic collaboration to flourish. Together, we can dismantle the barriers that impede our progress and create a future where collaboration is not just an aspiration, but a transformative force that shapes collaborative experiences in education.