PM Articles > Kent McDonald > Collaborating with Non Collaborators

Collaborating with Non Collaborators

by Kent McDonald & Todd Little

For this column, I am going to model my advice by collaborating with a good friend of mine, Todd Little, one of my co-authors on Stand Back and Deliver. Collaboration is sometimes a bit tricky, especially when people are involved. But a diverse team that can collaborate well can harness the creative tension to generate innovative ideas and solutions.

We frequently find ourselves working on volunteer efforts with a group of very talented people. Recently on one of those projects, we ran into a situation where a couple of our peers, George and Simon, were having difficulty working with each other. We were in the unique situation to hear both sides of the story independently and found it interesting that they both identified the same concern. George claimed that he was trying to work with Simon, but that Simon was not acting in a very collaborative manner. Meanwhile, Simon kept saying that George just refused to work with him. In effect, they were labeling each other non-collaborators.

We soon realized that while Simon and George each claimed the other was a non-collaborator, what they were really saying is that they didn't agree with each other. Considering projects we had worked on in the past, we identified similar patterns. When we work with someone who agrees with us, we either assume they are collaborating or we really don't care because they are complying with our desires. On the other hand, if we work with someone who does not agree with us, we may conclude that they are not being collaborative if it seems as though they are preventing us from making progress. Our key insight came when we realized that we should separate the ideas of collaboration and agreement and look at how they interact with one another. Our favorite tool for representing this interaction is, of course, a 2x2 matrix.

  • If someone wants to collaborate and is in general agreement with us, we call this situation collegial.
  • If someone doesn't collaborate, but agrees with us nonetheless, then they are in compliance and not a real obstacle.
  • If someone doesn't collaborate and also disagrees with us, they oppose us and tend to be obstinate, creating a combative situation. This is the category of non-collaborator that causes us the most challenges.
  • The most interesting situation occurs when there is active collaboration but significant disagreement. This combination can be quite powerful, as it generates a creative tension that leads to innovative results.

The combative situation is the least desirable of the four, so when we find ourselves there, we want to move out. The typical reaction is to convince the people we are fighting with to agree with us, thereby moving into a compliance situation. Failing that we try to remove the fight, either by removing the combative person altogether, or by sidelining them to the extent that it doesn't really matter if they fight us.

Combative To Compliance

These actions may improve team harmony, but they also waste a fantastic opportunity to create some real game changing ideas. A much more powerful, effective, and rewarding solution is to move the situation to one of creative tension to generate more innovation.

Combative To CreativeTension

So how do we do this?

We need to understand why there is no collaboration. A common reason is one or more parties involved prefer not to work with people who don't agree with them. You can almost hear them say things like, "I'll work with anyone as long as they agree with me." This is what we were seeing in the case of George and Simon. Both were very strong personalities and had strongly held opinions. They agreed on the time frame of the project. They agreed on how much they should spend on the project. They agreed what they should try to accomplish with the project. They were diametrically opposed as to how they were going to make it happen. Each assumed they were calling the shots.

Once they realized they had a difference of opinion, George and Simon immediately fell back on politics and parliamentary games. They started gathering supporters, identifying their detractors, and looking for facilitation techniques and meeting management practices that would steer the conversation in their desired direction. They were, in effect, trying to convince one another to alter their opinions, while at the same time almost exactly echoing each other: "I am trying to work with {George/Simon} but he just won't work with me." Each sensed that they were being manipulated, and so immediately began feeling that their opinion was not valued. They were not listening to each other.

It would be much more effective for George and Simon to admit that they had a difference of opinion, and then—for the moment at least—agree to disagree. Once they do that, they could step back and talk about the purpose and objective of their collaboration—why they are working together in the first place. Both of them believe in the purpose and vision and are committed to successfully completing the project. The problem is that they each see different ways to get to the end, and they each see flaws in the other's proposed solution. If they can agree that they are both seeking a successful outcome to the project, they then should come to an agreement on what success looks like for this project. If they can reach agreement on this point, they can have confidence that they are working toward the same aims and it is worth moving forward. If not, they should have a frank discussion about whether it makes sense for them to continue working together.

This process establishes a common objective around which the fighters can focus. Once that common objective is identified, they can then agree to listen to each other regarding their thoughts on the best way to reach that objective. The key here is to practice active listening. George should truly listen to Simon's viewpoint without his own answer running at the same time. Then, Simon should listen to George's perspective with the same attention. By showing that kind of mutual respect, they will build up a level of trust that makes effective collaboration possible.

Once they've established that level of respect and trust, George and Simon can then harness the creative tension to look at both approaches and understand how they can accomplish their shared objective. As long as they have defined success as something that benefits both of them, they should be able to come up with an approach that will work. The real value of the collaboration is that this creative tension often generates a hybrid idea—or even an entirely new one—that is far better than either of the original approaches.

The process we just described is not always easy. Egos and political power plays can often be involved, and true collaboration is effectively impossible in such an environment. If participants get overly obstinate and cannot resolve their differences in a timely manner, the whole process can grind to a standstill. Sometimes the team just needs to make a decision and move on, or possibly get an outside influence to help arbitrate.

We suggested this approach to George and Simon, and left them to their own devices to see where they go with it. The early returns look good. They had a frank discussion and realized that, while they were heading to the same destination, they were trying to get there in two completely different ways. George realized that Simon had a significant concern that George had not really been worried about. Now that he is willing to listen, he understands better why Simon was concerned. George still doesn't like Simon's proposed solution, but he realized that it did address the issue that Simon had raised. They are now in the process of trying to figure out if there is an alternative solution that addresses all of their concerns. The conversations are lively, but we can see newfound respect, and a spirit of true collaboration.

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