Is it possible to collaborate if one person outranks another?
Let’s say that a group of people are collaborating on the design of a new thingymemob. If one of those people is the boss, does that become consultation rather than collaboration. Even if the boss in question is a nice boss, a boss who listens, and respects other people (even makes the occasional collective cup of tea) is it likely that people will defer to her opinion?
Of course, line management isn’t the only form of authority. One person could be viewed as more authoritative because they possess expertise and/or experience that the others don’t or because of their charismatic manner. Less positively, some one could assume authority because they shout the loudest or moan the most. In collaboration, there could be a lot of parallel power relations going on. So how do we manage them?
Agreeing groundrules could be a start. We could acknowledge that people bring with them different perspectives, principles and positions and establish at the outset how decisions are to be made. This could also include some discussion on who the stakeholders are. For example, if some of the collaborators have no share in the outcomes, they may not be equally invested in the process of defining and delivering them.
However, are groundrules enough to make a difference? If the discussions about the thingymebob reach an advanced stage, with the collaborative team divided on whether to add the whojamaflip or not, is the boss going to be tempted to use her casting vote?
Perhaps she will, or perhaps she won’t. It might depend on whether she is thinking short or long term. Yes, it is possible for somebody to assert their authority and ensure that they get the decision that they want. However, if they want that decision to be implemented by those that they have just overruled they might have a nasty surprise.
In the institution that I work some programmes run projects where students compete to have a particular design realised. Those who lose out are then enlisted to help the winners in developing their design. The potential for conflict, both petty and elemental would seem to be enormous. However – I’m assured – it works principally because students recognise that the selection is a fair process and that they have a stake in the outcome (i.e. it does you no credit to sabotage a project). Critically, the process of collaboration is as important as the product, so that participants have an opportunity to reflect and be rewarded (or otherwise) for the manner in which they conducted themselves.
Perhaps that is the key. If we invest the process of collaboration with as much attention as the product then it may not matter if your collaborator is the Queen of Sheba or Jojo from Whoville.