Sunday, 3 April 2016

Learning about Cooperation and Collaboration: a threshold moment

My best moment last week happened yesterday. I got to hug my little Sister again. She lives in Brisbane, and the last time I was able to see her in the flesh was 6 months ago in Australia. She is over here for a quick visit and staying at our parents in Cardiff. So yesterday it was an early morning dash down South to seize the chance to spend some time with my Mum and Dad, Sarah and her family. It was a lovely day. As the hours passed, the sun finally put her hat on and came out to play filling the house with warm light. The wine and conversation flowed, old memories were re-visited through my Fathers extensive photo collection and there was time to talk about what the future might hold for us all. It was a lovey way to spend a day.

My second best moment last week was a ‘threshold moment’ of learning. The moment, when it came, almost arrived in the most pedestrian of ways. There was no aha! moment. I had been tearing my hair out over how to get 3 separate areas of professional services to work more collaboratively with each other. The 3 groups each make a unique contribution to the work of the University, but essentially they are all largely concerned with the same basic task. When everything else is removed, the task boiled down to ensuring effective communication within and outwith the University.

The frustrating situation is not that unusual. It’s a problem that can be found in many organisations. I also have to believe that the situation I was dealing with was not even the result of some conscious decision by one or more of the 3 groups to be difficult. I have written before on why collaborative working is often difficult to achieve despite the rhetoric espoused by so many that collaborative partnership working is a good thing.

My previous research in this area was mainly concerned with how different organisations work together as inter-agency partnerships. However the same difficulties exist within large organisations. Although we might all rhetorically agree we are working to a common aim, there can sometimes be a huge over-confidence in what collectively we are thinking – what has been described as ‘groupthink’. This is a phenomenon that can occur when groups of people strive for harmony and a sense of belonging, and will do all that they can to avoid conflict with others, but do so in a way that does not allow for critical challenge. In this situation, groups can often have an unrealistic and unjustifiable sense of certainty that they are in the right, which paradoxically then often results in conflict with others!

When this happens, it can make an openness to working with people who have different skills, or even recognising and valuing the contribution of others extremely difficult. In such situations collaboration becomes almost impossible. True collaboration can only be achieved by people who are willing to co-operate with each other. Cooperation is not the same as collaboration, although it’s possible to argue that there is a high degree of congruency between both concepts. In my MBA studies I learnt that teams, groups and even markets collaborate. Post MBA, and in an era of digital fluency, I have learnt that social networks and communities of practice cooperate.

My ‘threshold moment’ occurred as a consequence of focused email communications, and a number of positive face2face conversations with colleagues from each of the 3 groups involved. I realised I needed to promote opportunities for cooperation in order to achieve effective collaboration. Its not rocket science, but getting people to work cooperatively means asking people to approach their work with a different mindset. Cooperation relies upon free and open participation. When we ask individuals and the teams they work with to structure their work through the use of Operational Plans and adherence to performance targets, such open participation often disappears. I would argue that it is only through free participation and cooperation that creativity can be nurtured and complex challenges effectively addressed. 

It remains to be seen as to whether my colleagues working in their 3 departments can connect, collectively contribute and cooperatively collaborate. It’s also early days here in Manchester. Last Friday the 1st of April 2016 saw the official commencement of the greater Manchester Health and Service Care Devolution. Cooperation as well as collaboration will equally be necessary if the devolution ambitions are to be realised.