Defaulting to traditional kills collaboration

The garden at Wrens Nest Community Centre, Dudley

I’m sure many of my colleagues dislike it when instead of emailing them a document, I invite them into a Google Drive folder with Google Documents in it. I’m not sure if they notice when I do things like name the documents ‘collaborative notes from … meeting’ and clearly state in the document that everyone can add to and edit the notes.

The first challenge colleagues in the public sector have is that they can’t get in to Google Drive. It’s often because they don’t update thier web browsers. But they may not be aware of that. And I understand when pressures on time and frustration with tech issues lead them to emailing me to ask for the document in Word. Before I do I will suggest they update thier browsers. And I will keep inviting them in to spaces where things can be created and edited collaboratively, and where there is a obvious, available to all, copy of the latest version of a given document. Because it duplicates work when edits and suggestions are flung around by email and documents still need updating. And because I really think we need to get used to making and doing things together, even simply compiling records of discussions from a meeting. If not, one voice becomes dominant, and responsibility isn’t shared very well.

I’ve been observing the lack of wider contributions to shared documents in my Google Drive recently, and thinking about how defaulting to traditional ways of doing things puts up all sorts of barriers to collaboration and collaboration promoting ways of thinking.

Another example is some work I’m involved in which a budget has been committed to. A group of us have been discussing ways to co-design and co-produce activity with intended beneficiaries, rather than a few people in a meeting room pre-determining how the project will be shaped. One of the organisations putting in some of the funding requires a detailed breakdown of how the money will be spent before we start. That is as one might expect. The problem is, the organisation’s internal processes and traditional ways of doing things don’t assume or anticipate the surfacing of non-monetary assets which can be put into the project, potentially saving a fair bit of the sort of spend that would traditionally be budgetted for. The catch is that we have to start the work on co-design in order to know what other assets might be offered, and in order to collectively agree with a much wider group of stakeholders how budget might best be used to achieve mutually agreed outcomes. I’m confident that we will find a way around this, however it got me to thinking about how things are set up in organisations.

There is all sorts of talk about co-production, but finanicial accountability doesn’t extend to ensuring that wider available assets have been sought and contributed before pennies and pounds have been committed. Thus over and over again money will be being spent on things that could have been borrowed, given, used for free, shared etc. Thus the very requirement to set budgets cuts out opportunities for collaboration at the very early stages of activities.

These experiences have caused me to reflect on times that I default to traditional. I have been doing it lately in a piece of work in which I have made quite a few assumptions about what we might develop, instead of stepping back, defining the problem and exploring it fully. I am left wondering what questions and checks I could use to resist the temptation to default to traditional, familiar ways of thinking and doing which have the negative effective of closing down opportunities for collaboration.