Collaboration – the key for progress

Collaboration – the key for progress

For many the word collaboration means working together for a common goal. Yet, strangely enough since the Second World War the term has also acquired a very negative meaning as referring to persons or groups who help a foreign occupier of their country: i.e. working with the enemy. However, the notion of undertaking a typically intellectual endeavour that is creative in nature, by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus seems to be a far more appropriate use of the word in our European influenced world.

Paradoxically, collaboration does not require leadership as such but does demand personal willingness on the part of the collaborators, team willingness, the development of a spirit of enterprise and the use of technology, to be able to produce effective collaboration. Collaborative leaders, benign by nature, can sometimes bring about better results but only through facilitating decentralization and egalitarianism – in effect encouraging partners to use their best skills for the common good. What is really important for these partners is the trust in each others’ commitment to the shared venture and a sense that collaboration is a two-way process.

A few months ago I attended the Commonwealth Nurses Federation conference here in Malta. What captured my imagination was the fact that the countries of this unique federation work together so effectively around the world because of shared agendas and a firm resolution to solve common problems. It was a keynote speech by Martin Ward, an internationally recognised mental health nursing consultant, contracted here in Malta to our Department of Health to develop and deliver graduate psychiatric nursing programmes at the Institute of Health Care, that most interested me. I realised that what he was suggesting, basically that no single individual in today’s world can produce enough problem solving ability to resolve issues alone, had resonance for the Maltese context.

Working with someone produces far greater effect than working on your own – look at all the major achievements of the last century and ask yourself how many of them have been accomplished by one single person working in a communication vacuum without the input, support, stimulus or ideas of at least one other person. The answer is none! The moon landings, the discovery of DNA, even the development of nuclear power and the Internet are a very small example of this. John Seely Brown, himself a cognitive theorist and chief scientist for the Xerox Corporation says that most people, when asked to reflect on how they knew something, will say that it came about from working with, or being in the company of, someone else.

But, of course, there are several ways of achieving success when trying to solve problems, or get what you want, and not all of them are either effective or desirable. Ways of working with someone else can be viewed on a matrix that has assertiveness as one theme and cooperativeness as the other, the object being to strike as a good a balance between these two as possible. Within that box are several possibilities but there are five basic approaches. They begin with avoidance, where one person simply ignores the outcome of the others endeavour, in other words, ‘I don’t care about what happens’. Then there is competitiveness, where one partner tries to beat the other; in effect an ‘I win, you lose’ philosophy.

Next comes accommodation where one person always gives to the other despite their own wishes, in effect, ‘You win, I loose’. Higher up the scale between the two themes is compromise, a strong working practice for many these days, which implies, ‘Sometimes I win, sometimes I loose’, but has the added drawback of intermittent disappointment and the potential for resentment. At the top of the balance between the two themes is collaboration, a ‘win, win’ phenomena where each partner has a role to play. Collaboration is the most sustainable of these approaches because it means that ownership of the solution is shared equally by all partners and therefore not something imposed by one over the other. No one looses; no one relinquishes in favour of another, everyone supports the outcome and success is more likely.

Collaboration requires optimism, a sense of adventure and a belief in what you are doing if it is to be most effective. Here in Malta we have many problems that need to be solved but no one person has all the answers to all the questions, nor even some of the answers to a single question. By definition that is the nature of a problem. Partners need to be sought for their resolution, from at home and abroad. We need to be courageous in our attempts to enhance our national qualities of compassion, caring and human wholeness; qualities that have stood us in good stead in the past. These must be combined with the knowledge and creativity that others can bring to the table. If we are to achieve the excellence for which we strive it has to be with chosen and appropriate partners by our side. Ultimately, collaboration should not be viewed as working with an enemy, or even showing weakness, but simply working with each other.

This article appeared in the Times of Malta

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