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Lines of communication and collaboration

6 min read


This post is reprinted, with permission, from the book “The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles,” by Col. Ron Garan (USAF ret.) (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015). Garan is a decorated fighter pilot, astronaut, aquanaut and entrepreneur. He has logged 178 days in space and 71 million miles in orbit. He is the founder of the nonprofit social enterprise incubator Manna Energy Foundation and has worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Garan is also the founder of Fragile Oasis, an effort to use the orbital perspective to inspire positive social and environmental action. Follow Garan on Twitter.

Just as partners need to allow each other to provide expertise and act independently when necessary, a collaborative environment requires mechanisms that provide workers closest to the issues with a clear, open channel to communicate ideas, suggestions, and improvements to management.

Those that have decision-making authority for a team or business must trust the creativity and intelligence of the members of their team. Likewise, management needs a clear line of communication to share its vision with those tasked with executing that vision. Obviously, the smaller and more centrally located a team is, the easier it is to build these types of relationships.

Leaders also must take a collaborative approach to working with their people. Leaders of the past were expected to have all the answers, whereas leaders today are expected to ask all the right questions — and listen to the answers. The traditional model of a hierarchical structure with a directive leader who acts as the gateway for information and decision making does not work effectively in our hyperconnected world.

To address the grand challenges facing our world, we will need to develop mechanisms to build these types of interactions among large, diverse, and dispersed organizations, and to overcome the challenges associated with collaboration among those who don’t share the same language or cultural biases. In this type of environment it can sometimes be difficult to determine the right people to speak with or to figure out who possesses the necessary expertise to help with a specific problem.

Social networks have the capability to bridge such expertise gaps, and technology has the capability to make processes considerably more efficient and to improve decision making by providing complete, concise, appropriate, and useful data and tools in a timely manner. People can find subject-matter experts within their own organization or, when needed, can enlist help from the global community. As we embrace this new technological world and virtual communities, however, we shouldn’t lose sight of the need to build real personal relationships, and we should avoid the tendency to surround ourselves with only known quantities — things we already understand, or people to whom we are already connected.

Shared Credit

Through all of this, it is important to give credit where credit is due. Nothing destroys trust and collaborations faster than team members taking credit for or ignoring the accomplishments of other team members. It took many years of working together before the ISS partners would publicly praise the efforts of the other partners. There has to be a willingness to overcome the mind-set that making other partners look bad, or lessening their contributions, makes us look better and our contribution seem bigger.

Collaborative Networks

From the orbital perspective, collaboration is characterized not only by cooperating and working with those within your own company, nongovernment organization, nation, industry, or group but also by cooperating with everyone in your collaborative network. A collaborative network should include all individuals or groups that can bring value to a specific problem or situation, which may include anyone from the general public, employees, or management to competitors, clients, customers, or advocates. Someone who falls within one of these categories and is a co-laborer should feel some ownership of the task with which they’re involved. This is particularly true when the overall success of a critical project is riding on a particular product or service. It is better to get some buy-in and establish a sense of ownership with the supplier of this product or service.

True collaboration that brings real value to a group usually means stepping outside of traditional organization and one’s comfort zone to embrace new, innovative, and at times unconventional partnerships. If a potential collaboration looks too hard and messy, you’re probably on the right track. If a particular collaborative partnership were easy, it probably would have been pursued long ago.

Truly effective collaboration involves motivating and inspiring individuals and groups outside of the formal control of your organization, who come from different cultural backgrounds and potentially speak different languages, to work together to achieve worthwhile common goals. This environment tends to lead to a somewhat flat organization that does not adhere well to the traditional, hierarchical command-and-control structure. As the need for innovation increases, the effectiveness of the traditional command-and-control structure can often decrease.

The following are some of the characteristics of effective collaboration, contrasted with ineffective collaborative techniques:

Effective Collaboration Ineffective Collaboration
Team members resolve conflicts and differences at the relationship level and consider the overarching goals when determining the most effective way to assign limited resources or resolve competing goals. Team members send conflicts up the chain of command and let managers settle the situation. They lobby their management to “rule” in their favor, and put their perspective over the overarching perspective (orbital perspective).
Team members are motivated primarily by the goals, needs, and objectives of the team. Team members attempt to use the team to achieve personal goals.
Partners recognize the value that other partners bring to the table. Partners believe that because an approach is different, it is inferior.
Co-laborers should feel some ownership of the task. Team members only do things in their job description.
Partners in the collaboration are open to sharing control with their members. Partners are territorial and engage in power struggles to gain control.
All partners give credit where credit is due. Partners try to make themselves look better by making another partner look bad or by lessening a partner’s contribution.
Team members are encouraged to look for better, more effective ways to do things. Conformity is valued over innovation.
Team members cooperate with everyone in their collaborative network, including all individuals or groups that can bring value to a specific problem or situation. Team members only cooperate and work with those within their own company, nongovernment organization, nation, industry, or group.
Willingness to step outside of the traditional organization Stay within stovepipes
Emphasis on motivating and inspiring individuals and groups both inside and outside of the formal control of the organization Emphasis on motivating those within the formal circle of control
Emphasis is on doing. Coordination occurs on as-needed basis Meetings for meetings’ sake
Big picture view “How it affects us” view
Long-term view Quarterly report view