If collaboration was so easy, everyone would be doing it and great ideas would grow like flowers on a sunny spring day. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple and great ideas are not guaranteed; no matter how collaboration tools an organization has in place. In an HBR article, Nilofer Merchant lists “Eight Dangers of Collaboration” which are really roadblocks that need to be overcome.

This leads to two truths that must be accepted in order to successfully collaborate. 

  1. Ambiguity is inherent
  2. Conflict is inevitable. 

In most instances where collaboration is needed there is no right answer; multiple plausible options and a few great options will exist. The challenge is combining different characteristics of these options to create a solution.  As a result, there is an inherent ambiguity that is associated with collaboration that must be accepted. 

Collaboration involves “complex problems that are beyond the function of one domain or expertise;” meaning team members must be comfortable not having all the answers. This can be difficult for driven individual who like black and white answer, enjoy being the “expert” and vehemently argue their point of view in order to garner support. However, accepting the fact that ideas from a variety of participants will contribute to a comprehensive solution allows team members to open their minds. As a result, they are able to see different sides to the project they would not have distinguished on their own.   

On the other hand, team members should not be afraid to be the expert from time to time. A high-performance team will consist of members with multiple background and areas of expertise; therefore, each individual must be an expert or a leader at one point during the collaboration. Otherwise, why are they even on the team? Successful collaboration hinges on different leaders and experts stepping up to offer ideas; but, relinquishing control to another expert when the time comes.

The inherent ambiguity and multitude of options are going to lead to conflicting opinions. Debate among opposing idea and possible solutions is what makes collaboration successful; if everyone just agreed, important aspects could be missed.  It is important to note, however, that debate and argue are two very separate things. Arguing is closed-minded and based on an “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality while debating is open-minded and based on a “devil’s advocate” mentality. One is productive, the other is destructive.

Constantly challenging assumptions is what drives innovation and debating different points of view is necessary for multi-faceted problems. However, there is a balance between challenging assumptions and going down the wrong path. Opposing views for the sake of opposing views can quickly become unproductive. Teams must be able to recognize when a consensus has been reached and leaders must be able to redirect the topic if collaboration has run awry.

Accepting ambiguity and conflict allows for the limitless collaboration that sparks innovation and creates competitive advantages. Resisting ambiguity and conflict leads to stagnant collaboration that can leave an organization vulnerable.

Conflict is a part of everyday life; whether it’s someone cutting you in line at Starbucks, an argument with your spouse about what to eat for dinner, or a disagreement with a co-worker about how to prepare for a zombie attack. In these instances, the conflict isn’t really that big of problem. But, what about disagreements over pricing for a new product or departmental funding? These situations can have major ramifications among team members and some organizations will try to avoid conflict at all costs. But is that healthy? Should conflict be eliminated?

In many cases the answer is no, opposing opinions and ideas are crucial to the success of an organization. Continually questioning what is right allows organizations to stay ahead of trends and adapt to market changes. In fact, in his recent HBR blog article Mark de Rond states that “rivalry within a team helps weed out inefficiencies and – however uncomfortable it may feel at times – also keeps people at the top of their game.”

If Isaac Newton had not questioned gravity or Steve Jobs not questioned the use for a personal computer where would we be today? The highest performing teams are usually composed of a diverse group of people; different backgrounds, different specialties, different ways of thinking. With so many differences, conflict is bound to happen. The difference between a high-performance team and a low-performance team is how the conflict is handled.

According to Donald Brown in An Experiential Approach to Organizational Development there are five different ways to deal with conflict. These are based on two dimensions; the desire to satisfy others and the desire to satisfy self.

  • Avoiding: people who have a low desire to satisfy themselves and others and are passive aggressive or draw away from conflict.
  • Obliging: people who like to satisfy others and smooth over conflict despite their opposing views.
  • Dominating: people who care more about their personal objectives and ignore the needs of others.
  • Compromising: people who seek out a compromise between all parties leaving everyone only partially satisfied.
  • Integrating: people who seek to examine differences in opinion by sharing information to reach a consensus or win-win situation.

Teams that consist of mainly avoiding, obliging or dominating members will typically have a lower performance because one or two people will dominate the ideas within a group. Important points may be overlooked because members who like to avoid conflict or smooth things over are afraid to upset the harmony of the group.

On the other hand, teams that consist of members who approach conflict with an open mind are more likely to come up with a well-rounded and sustainable solution. Potential holes or flaws are openly discussed and the solution is adapted to address many of these points.

Constantly challenging one another forces everyone to stay at the top of their game. Team members will research and educate themselves more before putting forth an idea in order to answer the team’s constructive criticism. More importantly, if everyone is working towards a common goal, that zombie attack will be a lot easier to fend off at the end of the day. For example, Kim’s idea of commandeering an Army tank sounds great, but when you run out of ammunition and the gas tank is empty, you will be glad that Barry insisted on also bringing a samurai sword.