Demystifying collaboration (pt 1): Decisions

Emerging and evolving reflections on better ways of working together

Myth #1: Collaboration is a way of making decisions

A common context for collaboration seems to be in making decisions. But personally, I really don’t like the phrase ‘collaborative decision-making’. I don’t like the idea of it either. I might even go as far as to say that I think collaborative decision-making is an oxymoron?

Perhaps it’s my own biases, but the phrase conjures up an image of a group of people simultaneously ‘voting’ on a few pre-determined, or individually tabled, potential outcomes. It feels shallow and trivial. A poor representation of the power and energy of collaboration.

Is collective decision-making always collaborative?

A pertinent example of collective decision-making, without collaboration, is the 2016 UK EU Membership Referendum. Was the decision to leave the EU reached collectively? Yes. Was this decision reached collaboratively? No. The Devil was (and still is) in the detail.

I transpose the word ‘collective’ for ‘collaborative’ to emphasise this point. The two terms are not synonymous with each other. However, the two concepts often are. Our language and how we use it can often be lazy or imprecise. Counsel is advice. Consensus is agreement. Are these not more accurate terms to attribute to the act of collective decision making, rather than collaboration?

Collaboration derives from the Latin ‘collaborare’, meaning ‘work together’. Work. Together. Collaboration is therefore an activity, not a moment. It’s defined by a dialogic reciprocal exchange, not a specific outcome (e.g. to decide). It’s in this ongoing relationship where the real strength of collaboration emerges.

So yes, perhaps an eventual outcome of some forms of collaboration is an agreed decision, but it’s certainly not the core purpose of collaboration as not every collaboration needs to be decisive. Maybe this just semantics and splitting hairs, but I think the distinction is important. Collaboration precedes the point at which a decision is made by quite some margin. This is what feels contradictory to me about the statement ‘collaborative decision-making’. It’s a bit like summarising a novel by copying and pasting the last sentence. Collaborative problem solving, yes. Collaborative decision-making, no.

If you’re at the point of wanting to get buy-in on something, and you think ‘collaborative decision-making’ is going to get you there, I can pretty much guarantee you’ve already missed the point of collaboration.

In my opinion, collaboration has only two motives. To:

  • Share understanding: by empathising with alternative opinions
  • Solve problems: by creating space to think and explore together

These two motives are also interdependent and almost certainly sequential. My working hypothesis is that the act of collaboration helps you build trust to solve problems more effectively together.

This journal is an ongoing exploration into collaboration as part of School of Systems Change Basecamp. It won’t be static and will be added to over time. If you have opinions on this topic, especially anything that challenges or adds to these thoughts, please do comment or connect. I’d love to hear from you.

So far these thoughts have been informed by conversations with Sean Andrew (Forum for the Future), Richard Wood (The Ready), Will Higham (Rethink Mental Illness), and my learning cohort at School for Systems Change. However, all opinions are my own (and may not be theirs).

If you also have any experience of workplace collaboration, here’s a survey too. Thanks for collaborating! 🙌



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