A Case of Time Badly Spent: Match Made in Heaven?
It takes more than just putting people together
Good collaboration entails bringing together individuals and groups with diverse perspectives and expertise to accomplish a project that a single entity could not do alone. However, “good collaboration” is more than just having the “right” individuals and/or organizations in the room. There needs to be clear objectives for bringing people together—in other words, a specific purpose behind the collaboration. Sometimes, though specific individuals and organizations may seem a perfect match, without a conscious effort to work cooperatively, collaboration can feel like a “waste of time.”
The Education Reform Project (ERP) was perceived as a unique opportunity. At the time, it seemed that a collaboration of the 10 leading “giants” in education—the most influential and respected individuals representing different subfields of education—might initiate momentous changes in education. Though the “right people” seemed to be involved, the participants in the end agree that the collaboration was not successful. In fact, although ERP was originally constituted to become a long-standing independent organization, the effort was ultimately abandoned.
Initially much thought and effort was put into convening this large group of people. Funding was abundant, and budgets were generous enough to provide the participants pleasant surroundings, tasty food, and sufficient travel funds. Furthermore, each participating organization received sufficient support to pay staff to help with logistics and ease daily work. Working groups were formed, and meetings schedules set. Participants recall that in the initial meetings, there was “unbelievable energy… all of us had that sense of these were important conversations that we were having.”
However, after the “honeymoon stage,” the excitement about the sheer importance of the collaboration came to overshadow the “how” of the collaboration. Meetings became opportunities for the “giants” to share, and sometimes lecture about their own perspectives on the state of education. Rather than taking other people’s perspectives into account and seeking to generate new ideas, the participants seemed bent on espousing their own beliefs.
As an example, in one meeting the group discussed the importance of assessment in the classrooms of elementary school. One participant argued that assessment should be teacher-directed, while a second participant felt that assessment should be a reflective exercise by the student. This tension had the possibility of being a constructive discussion, which could have led the group to fashion new approaches to assessment. But in fact neither party was willing to “back down,” other participants “took sides,” and the discussion turned into a struggle. One participant remarks, “The tensions were intense. …we were always bumping up against each other and getting bruised in various ways.”
The sheer size of the whole operation also made it difficult to break down the feeling that each person had to “stake his or her ground,” and “mark his or her own turf.” Though the collaboration had been developed to come up with new ideas and approaches, none of the experts seemed willing to integrate his or her ideas with the ideas of others. In many ways, for the participants around the table, the act of “collaborating” was deemed as a threat to his or her originality, distinctiveness, and individual recognition.
How did this apparently “dream collaboration” spiral into a “waste of time?” What could have been done to “save” this collaboration?
Several alternatives might have helped ERP:
First, rather than assume that each of the participants understood the goal of the collaboration (to come up with new ideas “owned by the group”), this formulation could have been explicitly discussed. Second, assuming the goals were agreed upon, a named leader or facilitator of the collaboration could have asked participants to work in pairs or in small groups on strategies or solutions to specific problems, and then to present tentative formulations to the larger group. This approach would have encouraged (indeed, forced) participants to work together, and importantly, to take ownership of the blended ideas (a frequent result when one presents consensual materials to a larger group). The larger group could have discussed the options “on the table,” rather than applauding or shooting down the idea of just one individual.
Finally, if the collaboration was still not working as originally intended, the group should have openly reflected on what was not working. Without such conversation, difficulties and conflicts got “swept under the rug.” A knowledgeable and skillful facilitator could have been useful, and there were sufficient resources to bring in and empower such an individual.
With some collaboration expertise, including skilled facilitation, this situation may have been avoided. Spending time asking participants to come up with a mission statement for the collaboration (and articulate goals), asking participants to work in pairs and small groups to develop new ideas together, and openly talking about problems in the process of collaboration—what worked and what did not work and why—could have made a difference. This missed opportunity left the members with a negative perception of the entire effort. Though the collaboration started with much promise, in the end, it felt to too many like a “waste of time.”