ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition — February 2004

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In the Spotlight
Get Your Money's Worth From Each Employee
Moving the Elephant
Dynamic Facilitation and Transformational Thinnking


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February 2004 News For A Change — Home Page


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The Help Desk

The Process of Collaboration

What is Collaboration?
Collaboration is the process of working together cooperatively to meet an objective or attain a specific outcome. When collaboration is used in the context of teams, it usually means finding an approach or solution that can be supported by all team members—in other words, something on which team members can reach consensus. When team members collaborate, the best ideas are synthesized into a much stronger solution.

How Does Collaboration Compare to Other Decision-Making Approaches?
Many people confuse collaboration with compromising/ negotiating. Figure 1 shows how four decision-making methods balance the needs and perspectives of individuals versus those of the group. This diagram indicates that:

  • Allowing one team member or a minority group of team members to dominate the decision-making process creates a “win” for them but a “lose” for the other team members and the group as a whole.
  • In a similar way, voting generates a decision that may be favorable to a majority (a win) but may be very unfavorable to one or more individuals in the group (a lose).
  • Since compromise/negotiation involves “splitting the difference” neither individual members nor the group as a whole obtain what they preferred. This leads to a “lose/lose” solution.
  • Only collaboration ensures that the needs of individuals and the group are met simultaneously.


A simple example can clarify the difference between collaboration and compromise/negotiation. Suppose that two people were assigned to select new uniforms for a basketball team. One person wants red uniforms and the other prefers yellow.

Compromise/negotiation would result in orange uniforms—something between red and yellow. Neither person would obtain his/her preference. In a total compromise situation, the uniforms would have an exactly equal blend of red and yellow.

On the other hand, if collaboration was used to solve the problem, myriad solutions are possible: polka dots, stripes, plaids, or a limitless number of print designs based on the combination of red and yellow.

Why is Collaboration so Difficult?
Most people readily agree that collaboration makes sense theoretically, but they often find it difficult to develop collaborative solutions—even when they are trying very hard to do so. Unconsciously, many people approach the collaboration process assuming that it involves reshaping their original ideas. When alternative approaches are proposed, those ideas are compared to the original idea and are accepted or rejected.

This keeps the process mired in debate—whether silent or spoken—and prevents true collaboration. True collaboration can only occur when team members are willing to set aside their original ideas, search for the essential components of those ideas, and connect each others’ components to create something entirely new.

In most groups, the collaboration process starts by each team member stating his/her perspective and proposed solution. As different alternatives are presented, team members draw conclusions about them, based on the discussion and mental evaluations. By the time all team members have expressed their ideas, most of the individual team members have separated the proposals into two camps: acceptable and unacceptable. At that point, the facilitator begins to work with the group to create shifts in perspective of the individual members. The good news is that with diligence most groups can find a collaborative solution; the bad news is that the process can be arduous and may even harm relationships on occasion.

More Effective Approaches
Instead imagine a process that begins and proceeds differently, focusing on the few essential components of the original ideas. If conducted properly, a process of this nature can avoid time-consuming presentations and debate. It can go directly from individual ideas to a collaborative solution. Here’s how this process might work for a complex problem.

  1. Begin with a period of contemplation. Ask each team member to think about what he/she would do if no one else were involved in the decision. Instruct the team members to think at the “big-picture” level, ignoring details. Allow about five minutes for this step.
  2. Ask each person to select the two most important components of that approach. Give everyone two sheets of paper and a marker. Write one key component in large print on each sheet of paper. Ask team members to describe their selected components with just a few words (no more than three). Have the team members jot down their initials in the corner of each sheet.
  3. Post all the sheets on a wall and consolidate the identical ideas. Don’t eliminate similar ideas, just the ones that are exactly the same. How do you determine what’s identical and what’s not? Get the people who generated the seemingly identical ideas together to decide if they want to combine them or keep them separate. There’s no need for a large group discussion. People can quickly float from one small group discussion to another.
  4. Create an affinity diagram with the ideas. You can do this quickly by having team members read the sheets silently and cluster sheets together that have related ideas. If one sheet gets shifted back and forth between two or more clusters, copy it and put it in all the related groupings. Allow about five minutes for this step to avoid “overthinking.”
  5. Assign a description to each cluster that summarizes its contents. The description should be very short, but it should reflect the diversity of ideas in the cluster. Copy each cluster description onto a separate sheet of paper that is big enough for the entire group to see when sitting. Post the sheets on a wall.
  6. Ask each team member to generate a solution that combines all the descriptions. Allow a substantial amount of time for deliberation—particularly if there are a large number of clusters to merge.
  7. Collect and copy the collaborative solutions, providing a complete set to each team member. Ask team members to review them silently, identifying opportunities for consolidation. Explain that it’s not unusual for the solutions to overlap or for two or more solutions to tie together to create a more comprehensive approach. Allow about 10 minutes for this step.
  8. Choose a team member at random and ask him/her to present the consolidated solution. Record it on a flipchart, leaving plenty of space between lines and along the sides.
  9. Choose another team member and ask him/her to make additions to the draft, based on his/her consolidation analysis. This step involves adding missing items, not wordsmithing or deleting. Continue this process until every team member has shared his/her input.

At this point, the process is complete! The solution on the flipchart may not be written elegantly, but it includes all team members’ essential components and is shaped in a way that ties those components together. There is little practical value in “cleaning up” the words; just record the solution in bullet points if the wording is rough. It’s far more energizing for the team to move forward with implementing the decision than to spend time rewording it.

Collaboration is the process of building on ideas until the team creates an overall plan or decision. The following approaches are used in the collaboration process described above:

  • Focusing attention on the vital few components for building consensus.
  • Avoiding immediate judgment and being willing to find the merit in someone else’s suggestions.
  • Ensuring that every team member is involved in the process and owns part of the decision.
  • Breaking down an idea to its essential parts and retaining the parts that have merit.
  • Dwelling on the positive aspects of each other’s ideas, rather than on the negative aspects of competing options.

Remember that collaboration is not compromise and that the goal of collaboration is to give every team member some or most of what he or she wants. Authentic collaboration generates creative solutions that combine the best ideas of all members of the team. Collaborative solutions are far more likely to be accepted by others during implementation because of the diversity of the input used to generate them. For any decision that requires commitment and involvement, collaboration is definitely worth the effort.

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