Scrum Notes 2013-20

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Collaboration: the art of letting go ▶️

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Collaboration. Now there's a fine nominalisation, and one that frequently finds its way into corporate value statements, e.g. "We are collaborative", "We value collaboration" as if saying the word makes it so.1 And it spills over into normal conversation between peers: "I've got a great idea, do you want to collaborate with me?" Before the collaboration trend the same person may more simply have just asked for help—which is likely what s/he really wants.

A colleague of mine in the Certified Scrum Training (CST) community, recently made an appeal to his fellow trainers: "Instead of trying to compete with each other, how can we collaborate?" as if the two things are mutually exclusive. They are not. Maybe you can do both. Or neither. But it would help to know what collaboration is, beyond the simple idea of working together. I'll start that exploration by first offering specific examples of what collaboration is not:

  • On occasion I recommend or even promote the workshops/classes of other trainers, including CSTs. But that's not collaboration, it's recommendation, and sometimes guidance.
  • I've had other trainers join my classes, or I theirs, but that's not collaboration, it's participatory learning.
  • All my materials are freely available for anyone to look at, and use, with or without credit. But that's not collaboration, it's sharing.
  • I've participated in workshops being taught by two people. With a few rare exceptions this is not collaboration. It is taking turns.
  • I work with a group of around twenty facilitators/coaches to offer the ScrumMaster Clinics in London. But that's not collaboration, it's community and mutual support—mutual learning.

So what do people mean when they ask for collaboration, or say they are working collaboratively? I've found that often they mean cooperation. Realistically though, asking someone to cooperate with you is really just another way to ask them to comply with your wishes. Makes me think of parenting... "I can't get your coat on unless you cooperate with me", perhaps not waiting to find out if the child wants to wear that particular coat, or any coat at all. Cooperation is doing what you're told and being happy about it.

So when confronted with sentiments like "we need collaboration over competition" I can only think that what is really being sought is a reduction in competition, less "go away or I will crush you" and more "come hither". I seek that too, but it is also not collaboration, it is harmonious co-existence.

And what of competition? I don't feel myself in competition with any other CST. We may all offer the same certificates, but we don't offer the same experiences. By attempting to gauge a potential student's needs I may well guide them away from my workshops or programs, and towards other local trainers. On the other hand, I don't have any particular desire to collaborate with those trainers, even given a shared understanding of the term, which I've found is rare. Collaboration is a fine art, one that requires intuitive trust, and great vulnerability. I'm thus very selective, very discerning in who I choose to collaborate with.

The Art of Letting Go

Collaboration requires release, intuitive trust, a disdain for compromise and an ability to reconceive. It is the letting go of our own ideas and the creation of something altogether new. Many people (myself included) are unwilling to do that. Few people would know how even if they found the willingness. It is far from easy, and there is a great deal of mind-trickery that tells us we are collaborating when in fact we are coercing, manipulating, managing, shaping, colluding, controlling, seeking compliance and perhaps even sulking to get our own way. True collaboration is a rare bird of paradise, seldom seen, and when discovered often shot.

1 Denise Lee Yohn writing in the Harvard Business Review recommends removing this term (along with four other meaningless nominalisations) from all corporate value statements: Ban These 5 Words From Your Corporate Values Statement, HBR 05/02/2018

Sheffield, 15/05/2018   comment