Why Too Much Harmony Kills Collaboration

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By John Canfield

Collaboration is a popular buzzword right now. Along with creativity and innovation, everybody’s talking and writing about it. While it’s a great concept, what does collaboration really mean for business? The real challenge—and the enormous business opportunity—is for people to learn how to collaborate in a way that makes a positive difference to you and your business.

In my experience, many organizations suffer from artificial harmony, an underdeveloped way of thinking that emphasizes overly polite and professional discussion and behavior instead of productive communication processes that generate robust dialogue, learning, and significant business results. This reluctance or inability to talk about all the options available hampers innovation and growth by restricting the depth and breadth of ideas that get discussed.

There are three stages of true team collaboration:
1. Co-exist: Unaware and undeveloped.
This team spends time avoiding conflict, smoothing edges, and playing nice, but gossips about poor accountability among teams throughout the organization. This team does not know how to turn unproductive conflict into productive business success. Team members often allow one member to make the decision, to “win,” and the rest just go along with quiet reservations. This is one decision with poor buy-in and poor support.

2. Cooperate: Aware but underdeveloped. This team includes members who have read and heard management gurus tell them the benefits of functional teams, good meetings, etc. These team members want to turn unproductive conflict into productive business success, but the management gurus fell short in showing them how to do this. As a result, the team remains hopeful but underdeveloped. This team often makes the decision everyone can live with, settling for a C-, not-so-bad decision. The thinking in this stage produces a possibly better decision with improved buy-in and support but still falls short of what’s possible.

3. Collaborate: Aware and developed. This team includes members who have read and heard management gurus tell them the benefits of functional teams, good meetings, etc. More significantly, these team members have had the benefit of learning how to see conflict as options and have learned how to use approaches and tools to turn conflict into productive business success. Here, the best idea wins. This team knows how to do the work to make a decision that the team can enthusiastically support. The thinking in this stage produces a decidedly better decision with better buy-in.

Before a team is ready to make a decision, they must determine what they want to do. They must learn more about the situation and options before they can make a decision they all support. One of my favorite collaboration tools (one that a team in the third stage would be likely to use) is Edward de Bon’s “Six Thinking Hats.” With Six Thinking Hats, the team is asked to use six types of thinking in a sequence to walk around a potential decision before it is made. Each metaphorical hat represents one of those six ways of thinking. The team wearing an imaginary White Hat focuses on factual information, the Red Hat on emotions and intuition, the Yellow Hat on positive perspective, the Black Hat on caution and risk, the Green Hat on creativity, and the Blue Hat on control, overview, and organization.

Used correctly, everyone wears the same hat at the same time, for the same period of time. This not only suspends judgment until members are ready to make a decision, it also leads the team through six useful steps that help members understand the options and possible consequences of deciding one way or another. The hats, like other productive stage three tools, help team members narrow down the best ideas in a very productive and cooperative way.

An organization’s success depends on the number of great decisions, based on great ideas, that are implemented throughout the organization by leaders and employees. Meeting participants who have other points of view often resist these decisions. With different points of view, there is disagreement. Some call this disagreement conflict; I call it opportunity. While there are a number of kinds of conflict, and some of it (interpersonal for example) may be difficult to address, with a change in thinking, conflict can be a source of business success.

It is helpful to consider that when you have disagreement and conflict, you also have alternatives: Different ways to solve a problem, design a widget, or make a decision. Having alternatives is a good thing—a great thing even. What’s often missing is the team’s skill in knowing how to deal with the conflict, how to identify the options, and how to deliberately and objectively discuss all the alternatives before making a decision.

If you want to learn more about conflict, teams, and collaboration, consider these AMA seminars:
Dealing with Conflict in Your Team

Collaborative Leadership Skills for Managers

About the Author(s)

John Canfield is a corporate coach who offers practical tools for strategic planning, collaboration, and innovation. Canfield has more than thirty years of experience working and consulting for organizations around the world. In The Good Thinking Series, Canfield shows business leaders how to improve organizational performance by supporting more deliberate and effective thinking. The Good Thinking Series is available at www.amazon.com. For more information, visit www.johncanfield.com.