Collaborating with the enemy

I recmain.jpgently left a job where I got in a lot of arguments. I argued with coworkers over projects we were working on. I argued with myboss over the direction of the organization. I participated in heated arguments with the whole team about our strategy, processes, branding, and messaging. Sometimes the arguments ended with laughter and decisions on how to move forward, and other times they ended with everyone frustrated.

My time there reinforced the fact that collaboration is far easier said than done. People assume that collaboration — or strategy of any kind — means laying out on a plan, and then enacting that plan step-by-step. That kind of agreement is rarely possible, though. Collaborating with diverse groups of people on complex issues requires giving up certainty and control.

That’s the central thesis of the book Collaborating With the Enemy: How to Work With People You Don’t Agree With or Like or Trust, by Adam Kahane. Kahane is a collaboration expert who’s  spent decades helping groups of people work through seemingly intractable, often violent, conflicts from the end of apartheid in South Africa to years-long political discord in Thailand.

The book applies lessons from those experiences to professional and interpersonal collaboration — what Kahane calls “stretch collaboration,” as opposed to conventional collaboration. Here are some of the key ideas I’ve learned from Collaborating With the Enemy:

You don’t always have to get along with everyone.

Kahane maintains that it is actually possible to collaborate with people not only when you don’t agree on a solution, but even when you don’t agree on what the problem is. He talks about the need to cycle between engaging, or getting along with people, and asserting, or pushing your own viewpoint. Both are important — too much asserting leads to forcing and bending people to your will, while too much engaging leads to compromise and resentment.

My worst professional nightmares involve people yelling at me and not liking me, so the idea that conflict can be healthy and necessary is nerve-wracking. But then again, don’t you hate it when everyone has different opinions about an issue or project, but goes along just to be polite? Isn’t passive aggression unsatisfying, unflattering, and awkward? Not every workplace argument I’ve had has been healthy, but at its best, voicing my disagreements has made me feel relieved and empowered.

Prioritizing “the good of the whole” ignores the fact that there’s more than one whole.

We often try to make controlled collaboration happen by emphasizing “the good of the project” or “the good of the organization.” But the thing that’s being collaborated on isn’t the only factor to consider, because we don’t collaborate in a vacuum. Prioritizing the collaboration at all costs means de-prioritizing the individual people involved, and the families and communities and organizations and larger systems they’re part of. Effective collaboration requires recognizing all of those needs and interests, too.

Something to look out for: If you’re the person who’s leading the collaboration, the project’s success might be a high priority for you, because a successful collaboration will make you look good. Don’t assume that’s true for everyone in the group.

Shift from “should” to “could.”

When we get frustrated with collaboration, it’s often because those people over there aren’t following my plan. Two of Kahane’s principles of collaboration address this issue: First, move forward by experimenting and learning, not by making a plan and sticking to it. And second, instead of stressing out about what other people should be doing, become an active participant and focus on what you can do to create change.

In many of the collaborations described in the book, participants worked together to identify possible futures that could result from the present situation. For example, Kahane worked with the Organization of American States and several national governments in 2012 and 2013 to tackle the issues of drug addiction and trafficking, and the participants outlined four alternative futures that all departed from the established “war on drugs.” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos is quoted as saying, “The four scenarios are not recommendations of what should happen or forecasts of what will happen; they simply provide us with realistic options, without prejudices or dogmas.” Though the project didn’t solve or end the war on drugs, focusing on what could happen instead of what should happen allowed leaders to get beyond the status quo, and to think more imaginatively about the future.

I’ll likely never be involved in a project so grave and complex, but Collaborating With the Enemy makes these methods relevant and accessible to collaborating at any level. Working with diverse groups of people is part of being a participant in the world, Adam Kahane says -- and when we allow disagreements and uncertainty, we can move forward into new possibilities.

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