Real Collaboration Takes More than Meetings and PowerPoints

Collaboration is essential for our most important issues and how to do it effectively.
Peter Senge September 24, 2017
Here, Peter Senge describes why collaboration is essential for our most important issues and some of the keys to doing it effectively. Dr. Senge is Senior Lecturer at MIT. He uses systems theory to address economic and organizational change. Harvard Business Review identified his book, The Fifth Discipline, as one of the seminal management books of the last 75 years.

The good news is that people everywhere now talk about collaborating to address systemic problems such as pollution, climate change, and income inequality. The bad news is that not everyone collaborates effectively.

Collaboration means many things. Too often, it comes down to, as one businessperson told me recently, “I go to a lot of meetings with people I didn't use to go to meetings with.”

Meetings with strangers may be a useful start. But it is hard to imagine it having the needed impact: e.g. reversing runaway global climate change. Will talk about collaboration prove little more than a short-lived fad?

Collaborations with real impact

Successful collaborations do exist. Examples include:

What makes the difference?

The difference between collaborations like these that are gaining traction and the vast majority of others comes down to a few key conditions and a whole lot of courage. These collaborations: 
  1. Focus on pressing practical problems.
  2. Focus on transforming relationships. Groups must build a sense of mutuality, shared visions of what is possible and real trust.
  3. Create spaces for reflection and deeper conversation.
  4. Are anchored by a “backbone organization.” Highly skilled, dedicated resources are needed to sustain and coordinate complex collaborative networks.
  5. Recognize that “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Collaborating organizations must see themselves as part of the problem and, consequently, be open to changes in how they think and operate. 
The power of these conditions comes from their interdependence; they must be seen as aspects of a larger whole, not as a checklist of “good ideas” that get implemented separately. Only then do people start to see that success in this new collaborative world requires new capabilities — skills and attitudes — and new practices and infrastructures to develop them. 

Thinking and acting differently in practice

Here are specifics on two ways to develop new capabilities:

Recognize different perspectives.

Everyone wants to focus on pressing problems, but usually as they define them. But in facing truly complex problems, no one sees the whole. We all see only portions of the larger system. This is not bad; it is human. Our vision naturally reflects our background, competencies, and aims. The real question is: Do we recognize our limited understanding and have practical ways to address it?

One such practice is “learning journeys.” When the Food Lab network began, the initial core team — 40 people from about 30 organizations — spent two weeks together in Brazil. They visited farmers’ cooperatives and large global food companies. They talked with government officials and community organizers. All members of the team saw parts of the larger system unfamiliar to them.

Equally importantly, they saw one another. Riding in small mini-vans for many hours, with extended periods for reflection and conversation, they discovered, as one business person expressed it: “I am just amazed at how two people can have the same experience and see totally different things.”

Acknowledging that none of us sees reality as it is, or is free from bias and prejudice, can build humility, equality and, eventually, partnership. Personal or organizational “truths” fade in favor of exploring how different views could contribute to more holistic understanding.

Predetermined “answers” give way to exploring how we can accomplish more together. Over time, mistrust and suspicion decrease. A year after the Food Lab learning journey, the same business person said, “Our differences have not diminished, but I am now seeing them as our greatest asset.”

Create spaces that support exchange.

Practices for fostering thinking together need to be embedded in meetings as well. Whenever any of these networks meet, there are few “PowerPoint shows.” The vast majority of the time is spent in small working sessions and larger plenary dialogues, typically with short presentations on key information or experiences and people at small “café tables” talking about how ideas relate to their own experience and initiatives. The Food Lab network designates meetings as “no pitch zones,” so that everyone, especially NGOs, leaves advocacy and fundraising for favored programs at the door so as to engage in a deeper exchange.

Learning journeys and café-style meetings are two of many tools and practices that break norms and create different spaces for collaboration. It takes time to build networks and collective leadership for such practices. But, as people start to see how useful they are in shifting conversations and ultimately relationships to another level, they become a new norm. Why waste our time hoping that business-as-usual processes will produce anything other than business-as-usual results?

Sustainability’s greatest gift

Building collaboration networks that transform individuals, organizations and eventually larger systems is challenging. Usually, it’s pushed aside in favor of flavor-of-the-month quick fixes. But learning to work together at hitherto unimaginable scales may turn out to be the hidden gift within our often seemingly unsolvable sustainability challenges.

Slowly, painfully, we may learn the truth of the American founding father Benjamin Franklin’s entreaty to his squabbling peers: “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall hang separately.”

About the Author

Dr. Peter Senge is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Sustainability at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The Journal of Business Strategy (1999) named Senge one of the 24 people who has had the greatest influence on business strategy over the last 100 years. The Financial Times (2000) named him one of the world’s top management gurus, and BusinessWeek (October 2001) rated Senge one of the top 10 management gurus. Peter Senge has lectured extensively throughout the world, translating the abstract ideas of systems theory into tools for better understanding of economic and organizational change.

Additional Resources

Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R. B., & Smith, B. J. The Fifth Discipline fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. 1994. New York: Currency, Doubleday.

Senge, P.M. 2009. The necessary revolution. Leader to leader, Winter.

Scharmer, C.O. 2009. Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Sustainable Food Laboratory: The Sustainable Food Lab is a consortium of business, non-profit and public organizations working together to accelerate the shift toward sustainability.

The Presencing Institute: The Presencing Institute focuses on co-creating awareness-based social technologies for change makers and social innovators.

World Cafe: The World Café is a social technology for engaging people in conversations that matter. 


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