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The more I think about collaboration the more I think about conflict.

Previously, when I thought about collaboration I thought of cuddly words like co-operation, sharing and support. It meant people working together for the greater could. Now I think of strife, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

I think that John-Steiner is right. You can’t have meaningful collaboration if everyone always agrees. What would be the point?  An extra pair of hands is always useful but the purpose of collaborating with someone is taking advantage of different ways of seeing the world. Perhaps we should start every collaborative venture with a discussion about how we are going to manage the conflict that will inevitably arise.

It sounds a little alarmist, perhaps a little defeatist, but I think it could work. Negotiating at the outset how we are going to solve problems could ironically solve a lot of problems. For example:

  • Are we going to assign roles, with different people responsible for different aspects of the project?
  • Are decisions made by majority vote or by consensus?
  • What are ground rules for discussion (i.e. turn taking, no shouting, no nut shots etc.)?

Taking time to agree a set of parameters for the collaboration might help to harness the competition of ideas that takes place, and ensure that argument outweighs status when plans are formed and enacted.

Perhaps one of the most important things to decide is what the stakes are. If – for example – the stakes are much higher for me than they are for you then one of the potential areas of conflict is the contrasting priority we assign to the task. Most of us have been in the situation where we have been working on a project (whether it be academic or not) where it is clear that one party cares more about the outcome. If that’s you it can lead to understandable – if unhelpful – feelings of self-righteousness and infuriation. If it’s not you, the feelings are more likely to be guilt and resentment. None of these emotions are likely to lead to positive collaboration.

In a nutshell, perhaps our collaborative mantra should be: we are going to disagree. And that’s a good thing.

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