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
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
- Only collaboration ensures that the needs of
individuals and the group are met
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
Why is Collaboration so
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
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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