Tools and theories of collaboration

So we developed a model for collaboration, but what we found when talking and working with people was that the model didn’t explain ‘how’ you go setting up a strong collaborative approach. The model has a set of principles and a step by step guide, however it is possible to simply jump from one step to the next stating that’s it’s all been done in collaboration!  Of course we all start out with the best of intentions, but often deadlines and the sheer logistics of getting everybody in a room take over and decisions end up being made a little less together than was agreed at the beginning of a project. 

A lot of our thinking  about collaboration has been influenced by some of the ideas in the film below. The language it uses to describe collaboration is really helpful when reflecting on whether a project has been worked through collaboratively. The film explores terms such as:

  • Collaborative Inertia – the natural state of play where nothing happens, meeting and meetings
  • Collaborative Advantage – Keeping the collaborative group moving and continuing to work productively
  • Structure – getting the right people in the room
  • Process – focus on how the right people in the room then communicate with each other
  • Constitutive communication  – how we understand each stakeholders point of view and find the similarities

Each of the tools below are useful for any group to be aware of a they provide and group vocabulary and agreement on ‘how’ we will work together, and ‘how’ we will communicate.  A group being aware of these tools means that they can comment on the process of collaboration, which helps with things like power imbalance in a group.

Debate vs Dialogue
This is an approach that a collaborative partnership should accept individual responsibility for, and have the ability to reflect on whether they are working in a dialogical way. ‘Dialogue’ is not in itself better the ‘debate’ however the group needs to be able to work in a dialogue in order to truly collaborate.

This video is a brief introduction to the differences between “Debate” and “Dialogue” and which style may be more beneficial when working with others.

  • Debate assumes that there is one answer and that you have it.
  • Dialogue assumes that many people have a part of the answer.
  • Debate tries to prove others wrong.
  • Dialogue tries to work with others to find common understanding.
  • Debate listens to find flaws and make counter arguments.
  • Dialogue listens to understand and seek agreement.
  • Debate defends assumptions as truth.
  • Dialogue reveals assumptions for examination.
  • Debate seeks closure around own view.
  • Dialogue seeks to discover options.

It is an essential component of coming together and working collaboratively and if a member of the partnership is unable to work in this way you can slip into other modes of working which are non-collaborative – see the Thomas-Kilmann model.

Download a handy reference sheet.

Appreciative Inquiry
A technique based on identifying what is working and working from that as a starting point. A lot of the time we default to identifying the problem and then decide what the solution to it is, this flips that thinking around.

In the video below, Jonathan briefly explains Appreciative Inquiry.

This is a useful video supporting Appreciative Inquiry, and quite fun!

More information can be found here.

Fields of Conversation
This tool gives insight into conversations, and how relationships operate within conversations sometimes helping to generate new ideas and solutions and sometimes getting us stuck.

This film is a really clear explanation of the theory.  It’s also worth mentioning Amanda Riding’s book Pause for Breath which develops on this theory and gives you the opportunity for some more in-depth personal reflection.

Kantor's 4-Player Model
David Kantor has produced a model on structural dynamics, basically how we have conversations and how they can be mapped. For collaborative groups it’s helpful to be able to understand the conversational patterns that they use individually or as groups.

It’s worth taking a look at Kantor’s book ‘Reading the Room’, but for those with slightly less time here is a short summary of the first aspect of the 4 Player model.

Thomas Kilmann’s Conflict Model
It is essential the whole group has a clear understanding of when they are collaborating and when they are not. It should be made clear that you cannot collaborate at every decision you may need to make; however the group need to be able to identify when something will happen collaboratively or not. It is ok for the group to ask members of the partnership to work through a part of the project non-collaboratively and deliver an agreed aim, as long the agreement to do so is reached collaboratively.

Below is the ‘Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument’. The group should be aware of this model and it should form the partnership’s collective learning.  It is a useful tool when considering which tasks need to be done collaboratively or not.

Click here read more on the use of the Conflict model

Ladder of Inference
We all make assumption and then work from that position, this model explores how you can take to pieces those assumptions which helps to find more dialogue approaches to finding collaborative solutions.

Are there any other tools or theories you’ve used to work collaboratively? Get in touch with us to let us know!


Some practical learning from our experience:

  • It’s always important to explain the principles of  collaborative working to the group, in order that you all agree to move the project forward in this way.  Introduce Debate versus Dialogue, this is often a useful starting point.
  • Everybody should introduce themselves and what they would like the group to achieve; in short why are you here?  This starts to understand everybody’s values and you can then identify shared aims and goals
  • Always think about breaking larger groups into smaller groups, this helps less dominant people in the room be heard during discussions
  • Role model how the group should behave, refer to Debate versus Dialogue or point out when a ‘Move’ has been made (4 Player model).  And remember keep it judgemental!
  • Allow space for the group to get to know each other socially, this is how strong relationships are formed and the work will need these
  • Highlight ‘Action Bias’ early – groups often run to solutions or actions, that is assuming we know what the problem is and how to fix it.
  • Two leaders is helpful as a minimum; one to project manage and keep the pace, the other to check the group is managing to work collaboratively, or identify when it’s not and for the group to be ok with this.
  • Words build worlds – create a collective understanding using the vocabulary that comes from the group
  • Always reflect in pairs after each meeting. were there problems with the process? How collaborative did it feel?  What needs to happen next time in order for the group to feel meaningful?

Further reading:

In our time working collaboratively, we’ve come across, and have been recommended by others, a number of different books that further explore elements of collaboration and tools that help make it happen.