Collaboration―Ta Da!

All kinds of amazing things seem to drop into my email inbox. Lately, there’s been a flood of collaboration topics. One that left me with a bit of a sardonic smile stated boldly that agile’s “secret weapon” was collaboration. It sounds like someone has recently read the Agile Manifesto . . .

While it’s true that agile methods rely heavily on a preference for collaborative methods and mindset, there’s nothing secret about this nor is it a weapon. I believe this particular message came from a project management blog. The writer had obviously confused or simply been oblivious to the competitive warlike allusion in his or her reference to collaboration as a weapon, collaboration being decidedly anti-warlike.

We come across uses of collaboration in war with regard to “collaborating with the enemy,” which is considered traitorous. For some people, I have found, this remains their primary understanding of collaboration.

When in 1999 a colleague and I were working on an extensive review of the literature around conflict resolution as related to software development, we didn’t specifically relate it to collaboration, though by the end of that project, it was the collaborative model that most interested me. It seemed to hold the most hope for evolving highly productive and humane workplaces. We had partially grounded our research in the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Modes, and they remain important to my work to this day. The work that I have done around collaboration springs from that source, among others.

By 1999, Agile had been practiced by early practitioners for some years as they tested and refined the most common models in place today. I had brushed up against Agile with a few clients, but no one was raving about their Agile adoption. Manifesto was not formalized until 2001. It was the manifesto’s declaration of a preference for collaboration over contract negotiation (which you might think of as treaty negotiation in a war) that was one of the key attractors for me.

But, what I have found is that we are still really bad at collaboration. We know it exists, and we think it’s cool. But, we haven’t yet fully realized that collaboration and competition aren’t the same thing. And, we maybe haven’t realized that the competitive mode is the mode that breaks trust, while collaboration both builds and requires the presence of trust to function.

It’s true that we can use the modes in sequence depending on the context. One guide that claims to explain collaboration actually says to only use that mode. However, that author has apparently not read what the deeply grounded researchers who created the TKI say, and it is not that you should use the collaborative mode all the time. They acknowledge that, sometimes, the rules require competition and sometimes avoidance is a perfectly appropriate mode to adopt. The real art is in realizing when that really is, and when and how to change those rules.

However, as experienced Agilists know, you’re not going to get a show horse in the trailer in good order without collaboration. You can force it, and drug it, and whip it, and eventually it will get into the trailer, but not in the condition you might have intended.

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