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Collaboration ≠ Consensus

July 15, 2011 by Jonathan Gilburg

14 professionals were sitting around a table for a few days, exploring what, if anything, this “team” could do to influence their organization.  14 peers located throughout the country, each responsible for meeting their specific job requirements and responding to what their specific supervisor needed of them.  And all were “expected” to contribute to the macro goals of the larger organization.  Though this team had a high-positioned “leader,” she supervised none of them–so exerting influence through supervisory edict was not really an option. 

A major question for this team: What was their realistic capacity? Not, “What can we do?” but “What will we do?”

A major obstacle for this team: They didn’t all agree on specific courses of action, therefore little to no action was taken.

A major “blind-spot” for this team: In order to collaborate we must all always be in full agreement.

Though this team is unique in its role and its players, their blind-spot is not unique.  We encounter this unspoken but firmly held belief in almost all of the teams we work in:

Collaboration = Consensus

That is to say, “in order for us to effectively collaborate we must always be in full agreement with each other to take any action.”

The obvious challenge of this bias is that it is very hard, if not impossible, to get 14 people to agree on anything completely: ironically you could probably get 14 people to agree on the statement I just made. 

The less-obvious and more subversive component to this bias is the assumption that when we collaborate with each other, there has to be an abdication of leadership authority or influence—that decision making authority is handed over to a group of people.

The conflation of these two terms and practices is a real stumbling block for teams and organizations that know they need to collaborate to be __________ (insert goal here, e.g. financially viable, mission focused, streamlined, innovative, etc.).  And in order for teams and organizations to begin to realize long term success through collaborative efforts they will need to adopt a new belief:

Collaboration Consensus

Perhaps a better approach is to look at these two terms as leadership styles and to adopt the style that is most needed for a given challenge or situation. 

In a recent article from the July-August 2011 Harvard Business Review, entitled: “Are You a Collaborative Leader? How great CEOs keep their teams connected,” by Herminia Ibarra and Morten T. Hansen, the authors expose collaborative practices being taken by organizations that are striving to leverage the opportunities presented by increasingly interconnected, complex, and global business environments. They explore specific cases and highlight key attributes of collaborative leadership, which they break into four skill sets that can be learned:

  • Playing the role of connector,
  • Attracting diverse talent,
  • Modeling collaboration at the top,
  • And showing a strong hand to keep teams from getting mired in debate

This article provides some good insights into what leaders can do to change the culture of their work places, but what I like best is the delineation of three different leadership styles, exemplified in this graph:

Alternative Leadership Styles

My take away advice for leaders looking to collaborate: make a clearly articulated distinction with your teams about what collaboration really means with respect to final decision making authority vs. leave it open to the commonly held bias and assumption that we are either in a “command and control” or “consensus” mode with no middle ground.  This act alone might save you weeks of unnecessary debate and confusion.

What do you think?  What kinds of decision-making practices have worked in your collaborative efforts?