Collaboration skills are very tough for people to learn. You'd think that teamwork, where people have shared values and objectives would facilitate collaboration. But no, put people from two different divisions or groups together--and it can be a really painful mess.
Today's Times alluded to a terrifically cool piece of research, reported by Patricia Cohen, that explains the problem. So I had to dig it up. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber looked closely at our human capacity for reasoning. Remember that collaboration is about working through differences and coming to a workable joint decision. Team members walk into collaborative discussions with a lot of ideas. Typically, they're conclusions they've held for a long time. Collaboration is all about joint reasoning. As you know, when you get together to collaborate on something, most everyone already has their own conclusion to the problem.
So bear with me. A person's conclusions are simply mature inferences, a mental representation based on a lot of other ideas. Let's suppose, for example, that you're a school superintendent who's brought in an architect to build a new elementary school. In order for the planning to move forward, architects have to collaborate with the superintendent, the principal, and the teachers to put together their proposal.
As soon as the architect sits down with the teachers, the architects find themselves dealing openly with some "conclusions" (mental models) that can make collaboration very difficult. What comes up are statements like, "we don't want a Taj Mahal," "you're just in this for the money," "you don't understand education, why should we trust you," or "you guys always build what you want, not what we need." That's a setup for a breakdown, not a collaboration.
Similarly, architects have to work with the contractors, the construction people--and their reasoning can be just as difficult. Contractors are especially difficult because they get to talk to the school's representatives nearly every day. They can easily sabotage the relationship for the architect with reasoning that sounds like this: "architects just draw lines on paper," and "you guys don't know anything about building a building." How's that for collaborative reasoning?
The same stuff happens in most any collaborative effort in law, medicine--and business. Get into any collaborative team setting, and the same kind of stuff starts surfacing in ten minutes, making collaboration a very difficult exercise.
It's all about why people reason, not how people reason.
Mercier and Sperber assume, like all of us, that reasoning is the best way to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Yet, plenty of evidence shows that reasoning often leads to off-base distortions and poor decisions. So they decided to take a different tack. Rather than look at how people reason, they wanted to know why people reason.
There was one very important clue. When a team is trying to come up with a decision they noticed that everyone was mostly interested in arguments for themselves and against the other people. The confirmation bias is always a feature of collaboration.
I won't lay out all the research, you can read it yourself if you've got time for 50 pages. But their conclusion is very important. Why do people reason? To win. The entire history of reasoning since Socrates is not tied to improving knowledge and making better decisions, but focused on winning. Winning is in the genes, but not collaboration.
So how the hell can we collaborate successfully?
As some of my clients have told me, I tend to play dirty. I explain the problem. Then I'll ask permission to intervene anytime I think someone has switched his/her model to winning. And I wait until everyone agrees to my intervention. As you can guess, sometimes there's a bit of silence before I get assent. Then whenever I think the conversational model needs to change from winning to collaborating, I intervene. I make this a lot of fun and stay away from being "serious Dan."
As a facilitator, I've learned to get all the undiscussables on the table. And do it throughout the meeting. For example, I'll repeat something like, Hey guys. This is not an argument to win. That sounds like a "win agenda." As soon as you start looking to confirm your own beliefs, we're going to be in trouble. I know it's tough, but let's get all the stuff on the table for a better decision.
As I'm writing this, it crossed my mind that Republicans and Democrats in the House really need me. But, truthfully, I sure as hell don't need them. Enjoy!