“Modern life requires a complex flow of goods and services. The institutional relationships that organize this complexity are based in trust in the competence, sincerity, honesty, and legitimacy of others. The more complex the flows and the more heterogeneous the actors involved, the greater the vulnerability to violations of these social habits.”
—Moira Zellner, Charles Hoch and Eric Welch, Leaping Forward: Building Resilience by Communicating Vulnerability.
In my first post in this series, I described how children can learn to effectively problem-solve and collaborate with each other playing with simple wooden blocks. In post two, I defined how similar problem-solving environments can be created using systems and agent-based models. Today, I want to describe 5 factors that directly influence and enable successful collaboration and how computer-aided simulations fit in.
According to Merriam-Webster, collaboration is “to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something.” In a socioeconomic context, collaboration occurs when a diverse group of people come together to solve a thorny, adaptive, complex problem. Collaboration is an important means for effective social, economic, or environmental resilience.
When people collaborate in this sense, they share a common vulnerability and work together to mitigate their commonly shared risks. Examples of problems like these range from a disaster response to what species of fish to stock in a lake to satisfy anglers and Eco-stewards alike. In either case, the collaboration starts when these interested parties come together to form a working group, with a common purpose to solve a problem they all face.
So, what are these 5 factors? And how do they interplay to so deeply affect collaborative groups?
The 5 Factors that Influence Effective Collaboration.
1. Recognize and Communicate Common Vulnerabilities.
In my 25 years in the National Guard, I have responded to several forest fires and a major landslide. Interestingly, I always found that the unified commands that formed around these complex incidents were normally based on trust. They were open, respectful of individuals, and consistently focused on the situation.
The petty differences or personality clashes that one would find in a normal organization were absent. Sure, there were mistakes and problems with communications and logistics, but everyone was focused on the disaster-at-hand, and there was a definite “we’re in this together” feeling. In many ways, this group environment is counter-intuitive, as one would expect more disorder and competition in light of the chaos all around.
So, why were we so willing to set aside our individual differences? I think this was because we all shared a common vulnerability. With every operational period, we were briefed on how fast the fire was spreading or how many people were yet to be found beneath the rubble—stark reminders of what we were there for. The only thing that mattered was supporting the community that was hit by the disaster. For this, we could set aside our individual needs and work hard to adapt our resources to the complexities of the disaster.
Identifying and communicating a common vulnerability enhances a team’s ability to form trusting relationships and support deliberation and problem-solving. When combined with the remaining factors below, collaboration can become the core problem-solving mechanism necessary to maintain the resilience required to adapt to problems inherent in complex systems.
2. Involve Everyone Who Has a “Dog in the Fight.”
Group diversity is essential to forming effective collaborations. To enhance collaborative decision-making, it is important to include everyone associated with the problem.
Some may beg to differ. Obviously, the more people you involve in decision-making, the slower the process. I counter-argue that slowdowns are unavoidable. If you leave out stakeholders in a problem-solving collaboration, they will become a stumbling block later on. In fact, when dealing with complex-adaptive problems, diversity in your group is indispensable in terms of understanding the depth of the problem and the efficacy of the innovations the group produces.
So, pay me now, or pay me later… Involve everyone who has a “dog in the fight.”
3. Maintain an Environment of Trust.
Trust is the vital currency in a collaborative group. Adaptive planning models rely heavily on negotiation. Any group that needs to achieve consensus and joint decision-making must share trust among its members.
But what is trust, and what factors enhance trust?
To be a functional, collaborative group, the ability to change and adapt one’s perspective—in the face of mounting evidence—is essential to the group’s success. But this flexibility must be framed with trust. Trust is the knowledge that each member of the group is dependable and will deliver on expectations.
Trust is based on each individual caring about the problem at-hand. Everyone in the group must be concerned with the problem and share the vulnerability. There may be many details to work out with respect to how to define and solve the problem, but without caring, there is no place to start.
In any collaboration, people need to feel that everyone involved is committed to solving the problem. Otherwise, the group may feel that the uncommitted person—someone not working hard or even at all—is undermining the group’s ability to solve the problem.
People and the agencies they represent must have a reasonable track record of results to demonstrate their competence. Trust would erode as other members of the collaboration would question the institution’s ability to deliver on expectations.
4. Use Good Problem-Solving Tools.
Some challenges when working in diverse collaborations are defining the set of tools to use for problem-solving and the rules that will be used to correct power imbalances and resolve conflicting values among members.
The foremost necessary component to problem-solving is creating a common perspective of the problem. The collaboration must identify as many factors as possible in the complex adaptive environment that surrounds the problem. Diversity is the key that helps to adequately define the problem. If a significant factor in the problem is overlooked, it may be because the problem is underrepresented by a narrowly assembled group.
To get a good idea of how a complex problem looks, use a cognitive map to visualize the entirety of the problem and how it is connected to its environment. You will be surprised by its multi-dimensional complexity.
The group must create a common perspective to interpret and classify the problem. This is not a common, simplified distillation of the problem. The complexity and richness of the problem is flushed out and explored, informed by the group’s diversity. More members mean more perspectives, and the totality of the perspectives and their interrelationships become the common perspective.
The “how” of problem-solving.
Problem-solving efforts can be stalled without a set of common tools. A collaborative group needs pragmatic methods (commonly referred to as heuristics) to learn, discover, and solve problems. An example of one such method is the “scientific method.” The scientific method has long stood for impartial theoretical study of a given hypothesis. Over years of controlled study, the hypothesis is reinforced, and the theory becomes more or less accepted as a truth.
Another example of a heuristic is the so called “Planning P.” The Planning P is used by Incident Management Teams to characterize their environment, determine tactics or methods for attacking the problem, estimating resources necessary to support tactics, settling on incident priorities, and managing the work being done. These are known as staff processes, and they typically focus on the development, resourcing, and prioritization of problem-solving efforts. These kinds of heuristics are important because they create processes that encourage participation, define roles, and create a systemic method for managing progress.
Finally, the creation of a virtual playground aided by predictive modeling using computer-aided simulations will form a safe decision space to try out new ideas. Predictive modeling provides a unique way to try out novel alternatives to the problem.
Simulations typically have a visual interface that makes it possible to see the entire system end-to-end. Simulations include ways to interact with the system, such as changing response parameters and adding or removing resources. In this way, simulations allow the collaborative group to “play” with inputs to test out novel solutions without fear of failure. Collaborators can stack the blocks any way they want, push them down, and start all over again without fear of reprisal.
Modeling helps us to overcome some of our cognitive limitations. Our brains naturally simplify complexity in our environment. This is because we can only manage 3-5 variables at once, and we lack precision in the way we handle these variables, as we have a tendency to generalize.
Predictive modeling has become much more powerful in recent decades. From Geo-spatial Information Systems to weather models, predictive modeling is used widely in science and engineering to promote common perspectives of complex problems, to provide warning, and to promote an understanding of how problem-solving alternatives may play out in the future.
5. Replace Belief with Knowledge.
“Belief” is the common enemy of successful collaboration. Belief is the acceptance or faith that something is the truth, without the benefit of evidence. Belief differs from knowledge, because knowledge requires direct observation, experience, or evidence that directly supports a given position.
Belief is powerful. In fact, people die defending their beliefs in wars every day. Whether it is the U.S. promoting secular ideals of “freedom and democracy” or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) use of Sharia Law to oppress its people, in each case, beliefs are co-opted by those in power and used to fuel conflict. In a milder context, belief is a source of intransigence, and a functioning collaboration must have a way of converting belief into knowledge.
Take, for example, two groups involved in a collaboration that is to decide which species of fish is best to stock a lake with. The members of each group “believe” they are “right” regarding the choice of species—they do not agree on which species is best. There are several ways to resolve this disagreement. One group could amass significant economic or political power over the other group to minimize its own objection, but this would likely result in resentment from the other group and future delays and conflict. Another way would be to commission a study that uses a commonly accepted method to compare the effect of one species versus the other. The study replaces “belief” with “knowledge” and facilitates group discourse and problem-solving. Does this take longer? Yes. But the results of the problem-solving are better informed and result in a greater degree of adherence by group participants.
The way to overcome the challenges caused by opposing views is to replace beliefs with facts. Having a body of evidence that confirms the truth is clearly superior to overwhelming one belief with another.
Using solid, previously-agreed upon heuristics is a good way to overcome the rigidity created by beliefs. This is another benefit of predictive modeling. If participants can agree upon a representation of the system, it becomes easier for them to see the outcome, and it promotes empathy with everyone’s contribution—and the downstream effects—in full view.
Collaboration is at the heart of the human enterprise.
In the beginning, people came together as social units to mitigate the risks posed by life—collaborating over a sense of shared vulnerability is at our core. But collaboration is not pretty, because it is in direct conflict with another truth of human nature: selfishness.
Our apparent lack of altruism can be an inherent disincentive to participate in collaboration. Yet, the lessons we learned from the playground are still valid in our adulthood. We must represent our interests while at the same time empathizing with the plight of others.
These are the 5 Factors that Influence Effective Collaboration.
Thanks for investing the time to read this post. I hope that you have gleaned some elements of truth from it that you can use to aid your own collaborative efforts.
Latest posts by James Rollins (see all)
- Worried About a Cyber Incident? Here’s How to Prepare - October 8, 2017
- Training Pipelines: 7 Ways to get your training investment to stick - February 12, 2017
- Dialing 911: 5 Things You Should Know About Cyber Attacks - January 19, 2017