A Collaborative Mindset

When trying to assess the feasibility of a new collaborative project, I often run into a few people I’d like to get into the process who regard the whole thing as wrong-headed and doomed to failure. While there may be objective and sound reasons for the rejection of a collaborative strategy, there are times when that attitude comes from something deeper. It has less to do with the facts on the ground than with the fundamental outlook or mindset that someone brings to the idea of trying to reach consensus on a tough issue.

Listen to a few comments I’ve heard along these lines:

  • “Instead of hand-holding the special interests, you should concentrate on the people who really know something. The scientific community here can come up with a sound approach. That’s the only way to solve this problem.”
  • “Why do you want to have them at the table? That company has caused all these problems. They already spend more time with that agency than anyone else. We’re the ones who are always left out and have to fight them both in court. We’re the ones the feds need to hear from.”
  • “It’s meaningless to get around a table and talk at this level. This is not where the action is. If you really want to do something, you have to spend time in DC and work with the top people. You have to know how to lobby them to make any changes. You’re spinning your wheels getting locals together.”

In expressing opposition to proposals for collaboration, each speaker is revealing a different mindset about how to get things done. A mindset embraces a set of assumptions about how the world works, what effective action consists of and which styles of making decisions really stick. Understanding the clash between these habits of mind and those of a collaborative mindset is a key step in developing strategies relating not only to the use of consensus-seeking processes but also to the adoption of new ideas in organizational settings.

This post is the first in a series describing three different approaches to thinking about the interplay of clashing mindsets in the context of collaborative work. In this post, I’ll look at Judith Innes’ ideas about styles of planning.

The next post will draw some lessons for collaboration from Chris Argyris’ concepts about learning organizations. The third will review the methods and conclusions of a consortium led by Barbara Gray on the use of frames in analyzing conflict and the potential for collaborative solutions.

Judith Innes developed an approach that focuses on different styles of planning found within a professional public policy context. The point is the same. Unless attention is paid to the assumptions and thought patterns characterizing different mindsets, it is hard to understand resistance to new or unfamiliar methods in any field.

She distinguishes four major styles or mindsets and indicates the ways each regards knowledge, participation, power, decision-making and action in relation to planning and projects:
– Technical/Bureaucratic
– Movement Activist
– Political Influence
– Collaborative

Each of these mindsets plays a significant role with any organization, though one will likely identify the dominant stance of the group to the outside world. In this part of the series, I’ll look at two of the four.

For the technical expert we interviewed, his conception of participation in a collaborative activity was limited by technical expertise in the subject matter. The only relevant knowledge to be brought to bear in analyzing and resolving the problem was that gained through professional work in a particular set of disciplines. The decision should be based on technical considerations and implemented as a narrow means of addressing a specific problem. The power to choose the appropriate solution would flow through the hierarchical structure of the agency with the relevant authority.

In our collaborative mindset, participation included a range of interests directly affected or concerned about the outcome of the collaborative effort. Knowledge relevant to problem solutions needed to come from many sources, technical, political, community – and would be responsive to the group’s needs. Power would be shared; decisions reached by consensus; and implementation by relevant agencies would be based on the group’s agreements and could address a variety of needs.

Thinking in terms of a clash of mindsets adds an interesting dimension to other criteria for assessing the potential use of a collaborative process. The problem becomes one of finding the most appropriate context in which an individual could be helpful to the process. This approach can be useful not just to a mediator designing a process but, even more lastingly, to organizational leaders trying to integrate staff of varied mindsets into a team that can most effectively address problems of multiple dimensions. As Senge indicated, the clash of mindsets is a major factor in blocking the introduction of new ideas, and that is especially true of an attempt to initiate a collaborative process.

I’ll continue discussing the other mindsets or styles of planning in the next part of this series. I hope you’ll share your ideas and experiences about incorporating this concept into your work either as public policy mediator or as a collaborative leader.


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