Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Power of Collaboration

by Miki Kashtan

Everything that at some point is in the future eventually becomes the present and then the past. I know this is not major news for anyone, and yet the experience of it continues to amaze me each time. For some months now I had been inviting people to come to the Making Collaboration Real conference that took place this past weekend. Now that this conference is in the past, I want to share some of my highlights and what comes next.

Collaboration has become more and more of a stated goal or practice in many places. One of the things that became apparent to me during this conference is just how much we need to learn in order to achieve true collaboration. Perhaps counter-intuitively, in order to collaborate well we need to learn how to engage in conflict in a productive way. Sometimes when we are uncomfortable with conflict we end up acting indirectly, which may result in more pain and discomfort for others, sometimes even for ourselves, rather than face the discomfort directly. For example, today I heard from a friend about a former employee who is very dedicated to nonviolence and collaboration, and yet since this person left she has engaged in actions that stir up conflict and may result in punitive action directed at a former co-worker instead of coming to her supervisor to attempt a resolution. What would it take for all of us to learn to walk towards conflict so that we can find ways of working with those who are different from us or whose actions are upsetting to us?

Collaboration means learning more about power, and engaging effectively across power differences. One theme that showed up repeatedly is the isolation of people at the top of organizations, especially those who run the most traditional of them. Because others are afraid, those at the top don’t get full information; they hear more often than not an inauthentic “yes”; they are not challenged enough; and they are seen as the “enemy” which means that actual co-creation is less available to them. Ulrich Nettesheim presented a series of insights and practices for making the focus on human needs relevant to people who work at the top. All in all, I became even more aware than I was before how essential it is to relate to the goals, vision, and perspective of the person at the top in order to establish sufficient trust to get any openness to the power of connection and collaboration.

We also explored power from a different angle, when Edmundo Norte challenged us to look at our unconscious assumptions and perceptions about people different from us. We learned how being positions of power and privilege makes us less able to see the effects of our actions, and how essential it is to learn to engage others and invite their insights and wisdom, because they can see what we cannot. And when we are in a position of less privilege, how important and vital for the whole is our capacity to find courage to speak up. True collaboration appears to require both love and courage, speaking and listening, and changing our habitual ways of acting in the world so we can see and show more of what’s going on.

I was delighted to see how much of the conversation during the conference focused on systemic considerations, beyond looking only at individual needs. I have had a sense for some time now that the community of people who have been studying Nonviolent Communication have not been sufficiently informed about the organizational level, and I am delighted the word is now out for many that when humans form an organization something else is going on. Marie Miyashiro, organizational consultant, discussed her distillation of the needs and conditions that are essential for any organization to thrive: identity, life affirming purpose, direction, expression, and energy/resources. Gregg Kendrick, former business owner, inspired us with his personal story of how he applied the principles of Nonviolent Communication in his own business, and how he now supports other organizations in shifting into a paradigm of true collaboration using a combination of Nonviolent Communication and Dynamic Self-Governance. I was inspired and intrigued by his firm commitment to work only with those who are consciously ready to embrace the cultural transformation.

We also heard about two ongoing experiments with introducing Nonviolent Communication into large scale organizations that are only minimally committed to such change at the highest levels. While the trainings of people who work at the organizations are showing powerful results in terms of a variety of measures, the question of how to translate the successes into a shift in the structures of decision-making remains open. Whether internal to the organization, as Wes Taylor is, or an external consultant/trainer as Dian Killian is with her team of trainers, I am left with a great deal of curiosity about how far change can proceed without the explicit blessing of the person in charge, which loops back to the question about how connection with the person at the top can be made. I am glad that Jane Connor who works with Dian is conducting scientific research on their work at a Fortune 500 company.

Over the course of the conferences many people expressed a tremendous hunger for practical how-to’s that they could apply back in their own organizations. Two of the sessions we presented were more practical. Martha Lasley led us through a preliminary practice of coaching skills using the tools of Nonviolent Communication, and I modeled a decision-making process based on the principle of maximizing willingness, a way of making collaborative decisions that everyone can live with.

I am deeply committed to integrity between what we teach and what we practice. Because of that, my biggest personal celebration is the degree of collaboration that I experienced among the presenters. Some of us had never been in a room together, and yet we worked together to make this conference a success. We met every morning to reflect on how things are going and how we might adapt the flow of the conference to respond to feedback. We had several conversations in which we explored some differences in our approaches to the work, and I found our trust deepening as a result of these explorations, reaffirming my faith in the power of dialogue to metabolize and make use of differences. I know that it’s only through deep collaboration that we can truly rise to the challenge of the immense need we are facing on a global scale. I can’t wait to see how this collaboration will continue to unfold in the coming months and years.

If you are interested in seeing how you can learn about more collaboration in your workplace or consulting practice, come to our next informational call for the MCR yearlong program that starts in May.