For some time, I have been profoundly interested in understanding what lies at the heart of genuine, generous, and generative collaborative work. Along the way, this has led to some amazing conversations, initiations into like-minded spaces such as The Weaving Lab, The Presencing Institute, Deep Democracy work, and Time to Think , and the development of networks that have provided seriously rewarding insights and shifts in perceptions.
Recently, I was privileged to have been able to spend a week on the shores of Lake Victoria in Entebbe, Uganda, attending the Africa Philanthropy Network’s 2022 Assembly, as well as to meet with colleagues and friends from the Africa Voices Dialogue network in Uganda, some of whom travelled for more than 12 hours so that we could be together. Aside from the fabulous new relationships built, and the deepening of existing relationships formed entirely online during COVID, this visit afforded us the remarkable opportunity to have some discussions about the nature of shared work and how to navigate some of the challenges that we are faced with in sometimes seemingly intractable systems and issues. We did this while sitting next to the same body of water which gives rise to the River Nile, the longest river on the planet Earth, formed by multiple tributaries, and following an extremely tortuous course across half the African continent. This remarkable river nurtures and supports multiple complex living systems and many human settlements.
This led me to think about the confluences and fluidity of our living connections, the courses they take, how beautiful and tricky they can be, and how they can better serve the spaces they reach…
Like the flow of water, collaboration and co-creative work cannot be forced. When they are, we sense in our bodies and in our spirits that the shared work being referred to as “collaboration” is, at best, really only a form of skills contracting, out-sourcing or service provision, and at worst, a form of coercion enabled by some form of “power-over” – whether this is financial, positional, or emotional. Generally, this is because the intention in forming such collaborations is determined by a specific outcome, project, or piece of work. In this way, we are asked to “collaborate” to achieve a pre-determined outcome. Our gaze, energy and effort are then primarily focussed on the project we are undertaking, and on the specifics of the work being done by each party. Team building initiatives and the attention paid to the people in the mix has the primary motivation of facilitating relationships amongst the team members, because “this will help us get the work done quicker/ better/ more efficiently”.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this – it is just that we should call it by its correct name (project management) and understand that the focus of our drive and attention is on projects and outcomes, not on people and relationships. With this kind of approach, when the project goes pear-shaped, there is often very low resilience within the relationships to weather negative outcomes, and it’s easy for blame and withdrawal of emotional energy to occur.
When we are fixed on a specific and pre-determined outcome for our shared work, it’s really easy to find ourselves pushing upstream, losing the energy of flow, and dissipating our sense of collectivism.
Genuine collaborative and generative work has at its heart a subtle (but profound) shift in focus, which is determined by the conscious and intentional commitment to relationship first. This gives rise to a vastly different experience for all involved.
When we are intentional and conscious about retaining our focus on the human beings with whom we are engaging, even when there may be NO INITIAL convening force around a specific project or piece of work, but where some form of shared purpose or passion is present, we create the substrate in which deep creativity, a better understanding of our shared and differing experiences, and ultimately, a vastly improved capacity to visualise, sense, interpret and understand the environment (or system) within which our relationships are taking place can emerge. Almost inevitably, shared work and projects that are responsive to the real needs of these environments or systems follow. These projects are emergent, responsive to real, not perceived needs, and are usually very powerful in terms of their outcomes. This pattern becomes even more powerful when a clear focus and intentionality is retained around repeatedly returning to the relationships between those involved in order to reflect and sense together. In such conditions, the failure and setbacks in a specific approach or effort do not precipitate relationship breakdown, but rather form the catalyst for reuniting, co-reflecting on what happened, and deepening a shared understanding of what the sticking points were – which mostly results in creative thinking about how to circumnavigate, re-imagine or completely transform the initial approach. This is possible because in an environment where you know that your relationships matter more than your work, there is high psychological safety – and in psychologically safe environments we can be brave, experiment, innovate, create…. These kinds of co-created collective efforts follow the topography of the shared landscape. They lean into each other to understand where the barriers lie, where the water wants to flow, and they remain intentional about returning to each other even where their flow may be disrupted by obstacles.
This all seems rather obvious – but like many obvious things, it is not at all common. Operating in this way requires a very clear (and genuine) sense of intentionality. Connections like this cannot be faked or manufactured as a means to an end – they need to BE the means AND be the end. The work, therefore, is always secondary. If you like, it needs a revolutionary shift in our thinking to understand that we are not in relationship for the sake of the work – but rather we work together for the sake of strengthening the relationship. This can (and if this is the kind of environment you are after, must) be practiced. It’s not complex, but it is difficult – difficult because it requires the surrender of our learnt behaviour that outcomes and deliverables are what matter most and are what validate us and give us meaning. Difficult because it requires personal, as well as collective, vulnerability.
How to start? Examine your intent (not once – repeatedly), become brave, open, transparent, and vulnerable – and dive into the water…. And make sure to do lots of human things together – eating, dancing, joking, talking, hugging, telling anecdotes, playing…long before and in between talking about the work aspect of things…
This is perhaps how we can best assess whether teams and groups are truly functioning in collaborative flow – do the white waters of the work – the setbacks, conflicts, challenges – throw them apart, or do they draw them together? Can they trust each other in challenging times because they have intentionally and continuously invested in their relational bonds and sense of safety with one another?
“As the quality of relationships rises, the quality of thinking improves, leading to an increase in the quality of actions and results.”
Daniel Kim – The Core Theory of Success
“The quality of everything we do, depends on the quality of our thinking. And the quality of our thinking depends on how we are being treated while we are thinking – it depends on our relationships”
Nancy Kline – Time to Think