This is a question that comes up in the change management work I do and the design work I do. Both professional domains propose that collaborative participation of the user/subject/affected is valuable to better outcomes. I fully support this notion.

It becomes difficult to accomplish this, when people don’t have a useful understanding of the nature of collaboration, nor the necessary skills to be an effective collaborator.

“Collaborate” literally means ‘to work together’. However true collaboration is a distinctive superior level of working together. Let me share some thoughts about how this is so.

Often collaboration is seen as a way to tap into the wisdom of the crowd. In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds (2005), James Surowecki, says “The best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.” and “Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest not consensus or compromise.”

This is not the normal way of thinking/acting in groups – arguably it is the way of thinking/acting for truly collaborative groups. So how do you go about creating conditions for such behaviours?

A decade ago a friend introduced me to a model of 5 Conversations for Collaboration. (Source note: I’ve given it that title because neither of us can remember his source and I can’t find mention of this on the web.)

These conversations are sequential and cumulative. They are:

Conversation 1: Who am I?
Conversation 2: Who are you?
Conversation 3: Who are we?
Conversation 4: How will we work together?
Conversation 5: What is our task/goal?

Most ‘working together’ situations start by jumping straight to Conversation 5 ‘What is our task/goal?” without covering the foundational work of the preceding four conversations. Arguably this is a core reason why ‘collaborations’ go off-the-rails and result in unhappy people.

I’ll expand a little on each of these Conversations:

Conversation 1: Who am I
This is an ongoing conversation you have with yourself (potentially aided by reflective practice and preference/personality frameworks) about your character, your abilities and your values. If you don’t have a sense of these things, you will have difficulty participating in the other conversations where you will need to negotiate and consider your participation with the context of other people. Self-knowledge is the foundation for healthy emotional intelligence – and you’ll need all the EQ you can muster to be truly collaborative!

Conversation 2: Who are you
This is the start of getting to know the other people in your collaborative endeavour. More than just a superficial conversation, you learn about their character, abilities and values to get a sense of their perspective, separate to yours. This is an opportunity to find and celebrate the diversity of who might be in the group, and discover what assets (technical, functional, psycho-social) each has that might be available for the group’s purpose.

Conversation 3: Who are we
When the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ come together, the sum is greater than all the parts – something new is formed. There are different dynamics and perspectives that appear by the unique mix of all the individuals present. Give this new group identity an opportunity to emerge and be shaped. The group will likely have its own character and a collective set of values, separate but part of any single individual’s character and values. And within the group context, each individual might enact different roles (intentionally or incidentally) than in other contexts – like putting on a different hat or coat for a time. From each of these roles emerge different behaviours and expectations of self and other. The helpful ways to relate with each other influences by these roles can shift.  Expectations are negotiated (formally or informally) by all individuals who will act to ensure a level of constancy with their sense of self in the role(s) they are inhabiting.

This is part of the Forming stage of team development (Bruce Tuckman 1965) (Read more about this in a MindTools article.)

This is also the time to define what value – as distinct from values! – the group is expecting to create by being a group, and the purposes or reason why the group has formed.

This can be the conversation where some individuals leave the proposed collaborative endeavour. There may be a conflict in values; there may be recognition that the requisite skill level is not met; there may not be shared commitment to the group’s purpose; or there may be insufficient diversity for new value to be created.

Conversation 4: How will we work together
This is both a philosophical and functional conversation. Depending on the value you intend to create as a group, or the work you will do together – there will be a range of approaches or methods to be considered. Those approaches and methods will have underlying paradigms and beliefs of which the group needs to comprehend and accept. These approaches will also have particular techniques for which the individual needs skill and knowledge; and this can be the time when specific learning and induction begins. Depending on the skills and knowledge of individuals in the group, peer-mentoring may be set-up, or agreement about particular working partnerships to leverage strengths and mitigate weaknesses.

This is also the time to start thinking about specific roles/positions, relationships and rules. If this collaboration was a game, like rugby, do all the players know how they fit together and work as a cohesive whole and by what rules they are playing? Additional learning/induction with a focus on ‘Being an effective collaborator’ and ‘Being an effective team member’ may be essential – particularly where there is need to challenge conventional notions of what kind of behaviours are desirable and necessary for true collaboration, and the purpose of the group.

Expect some iterative activity between conversations 4 and 5 as you explore the nature of the work, and how the group decides to respond to specifics.

Conversation 5: What is our task/goal
In this conversation it’s time to get deeper into the specifics of the work. This is when objectives and definitions of success are discussed and agreed; and work assignments are defined and allocated. This conversation is ideal for a workshop setting.

So if you are not ‘collaborating’, what are you doing when working together? You could be in a Co-ordination Mode or a Co-operation Mode. These are also working together but are not Collaboration. These three modes differ in the type and degree of interaction and their goals.

Co-ordination – driven by a directive; requires people to follow instructions; trust not key to success; value unlikely to be gained by people involved
Co-operation – may be driven by a directive; requires medium level of trust; value may be gained by one party or neither
Collaboration – driven by mutual self-interest; open-ended series of interactions; requires high levels of trust; value gained by all parties and creation of new value

These distinctions come from “Designing effective collaboration” a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (2008).


A few years ago I came across a blog titled “Don’t Collaborate?” – I saw the words in the first paragraph about shooting the sacred cow of collaboration and yelped with delight! Someone was prepared to publicly argue that there are times when collaboration is not useful (they also outlined situations when collaboration was useful). It resonated with my experiences.

The author listed these contexts as situations when collaboration isn’t useful:

Context 1. Under time constraints
Context 2. Dealing with issues irrelevant to others
Context 3. Working with those who don’t have good communication or collaboration skills
Context 4. Experiencing conflict rooted in divergent values

Contexts 2-4 could be mitigated if Conversations 1-4 took place!

Context 1 is about recognising that Collaboration mode may be effective, but it is not necessarily efficient. If you want to do effective Collaboration, you need to invest time in conversations that can appear to be a waste of time if time is measured in terms of short-term productive output, rather than long-term productive outcomes.


To collaborate or not to collaborate, that is the question!
It’s nobler to consider all working-together options and knowingly pick what is right for the circumstance. And don’t forget to name and agree with those involved what mode you are working in – that will help avoid discord later on.



Helen Palmer is Founder and Principal Change Agent at Questo. Like Winnie the Pooh, she ‘sits and thinks’ … and imagines how people can make a better life for others and themselves in their work-scape. She likes to share those thoughts with the possibility that they inspire and initiate meaningful change.

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