A big problem most CIOs face when building collaborative cultures is confusing collaboration with cooperation. Conflict is healthy writes Doug Moran.

IT leaders understand better than most that collaboration is critical. Not only are we expected to work with our colleagues to tackle the difficult issues confronting our organizations, we must also provide the tools that support effective collaboration. Unfortunately, too much of the focus is on the tools rather than on creating collaborative cultures.

The biggest problem that most leaders face when building collaborative cultures is that we confuse collaboration with cooperation. While the words have similar definitions, the concepts differ. The fundamental difference is this: Cooperation is measured by the quality of the relationship, and collaboration is measured by the quality of the output that the relationship produces.

Embrace Conflict to Foster Collaboration

In reality, cooperation can be one of the greatest obstacles to collaboration. For collaboration to occur, there needs to be conflict. Great collaboration can get heated. To an outsider, it sometimes resembles hostility or anger, but when we look more closely it is neither.

In his book The Open Organization, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst describes this well. He tells the story of his wife overhearing what she believed to be a fight between Whitehurst and another Red Hat executive, when in fact she had heard a collaborative, certainly heated but productive and overall positive conversation. Fiery discussions and passionate debates are essential elements in Red Hat’s collaborative culture. The creativity that defines Red Hat’s success isn’t a function of getting along. As Whitehurst writes, it is a result of “letting the sparks fly.”

Without collaboration, our ability to create transformative change is limited. Therefore, if collaboration depends on conflict, our ability to create transformative change may be hampered by an overly cooperative culture. While it is possible to generate breakthrough innovations or transformative ideas when everyone is getting along, the best creative environments arise from cultures that embrace the healthy conflict that collaboration produces. I have witnessed this first-hand as an executive coach and as an IT leader.

Capital One’s revolutionary approach to banking was a product of its collaborative culture. During my ten years there as an IT executive, I learned that a good idea was worthless unless it had been tested in the fire of critical analysis. We believed that one person’s good idea was rarely good enough. By challenging an idea (really poking and picking at it), it either fell apart or became stronger. At times these challenges could feel personal, but they rarely were. They were spirited debates aimed at creating something better.

"If collaboration depends on conflict, our ability to create transformative change may be hampered by an overly cooperative culture"

Collaborative conflict isn’t about being mean or combative. It is about seeking the truth and getting others to do likewise. Every IT leader knows that the pace of change is accelerating. Whether the changing demands are organizational, technical, regulatory, or market-driven, staying ahead of the curve is increasingly difficult. The only way we can stay ahead is to leverage every asset we have. We must get people to come together to tackle these challenges with passion. We must seek opinions and perspectives that diverge from our own. We must welcome and nurture conflicting ideas even when we believe our idea is right.

Four Ways to Embrace Conflict

So how do we do that? How do we create a culture that embraces conflict when we live in a society that expects everyone to get along? It starts with five concepts:

  • Learn to fight well – My mother-in-law was a therapist who worked with families in crisis. She once commented on how well my wife and I fought. My initial reaction was a little defensive. “We don’t fight. We disagree,” I said. She looked me in the eye and said, “You fight, but you fight well.” She explained that healthy relationships need conflict to grow, but many people avoid conflict because it is uncomfortable. That’s as true at work as it is in marriage. The key to healthy conflict is to attack the issue with passion, but never attack each other. One of the best things we can do to teach others how to fight is to establish ground rules, so everyone knows what fair fighting looks like.

  • Take things professionally – I started to write, “Don’t take things personally,” but that is too passive. This idea of “taking things professionally” struck me as I was reading about the relationship between the late Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Shortly after Scalia’s death, Ginsberg paid tribute to her colleague and friend. She acknowledged that Scalia’s criticisms were often brutal – he was known to refer to his colleagues’ opinions as “applesauce” because they lacked substance. However, by actively seeking the truth in his criticisms, Justice Ginsberg improved the quality of her work. She sought the diversity of his opinion to make her own more powerful.

  • Look for others’ gifts – It’s easy to find the gifts in those we like. The fact that Justices Scalia and Ginsberg liked and respected one another made it easier to see the value in their conflicting opinions and arguments. As leaders we have to nurture relationships with a diverse set of people. We have to engage both our friends and the “jerks.” Next time you need to engage someone with whom you struggle to collaborate, look for just one thing about the person that you appreciate. By acknowledging one thing, we may start to notice more things. As we start to appreciate their gifts, we can start seeing the value of opinions – especially when they conflict with ours.

  • Start small – Creating a trusting, collaborative culture takes a lot of work, and it won’t happen overnight. So, start small. Pick a team with whom you work closely, and agree to start focusing on collaboration. They may need help understanding what you mean, so take time to explain the concept.

We all know that collaboration is an essential part of achieving our best. We also know that it is easy to talk about but hard to do. By recognizing and embracing the inherent conflict that real collaboration creates, we can avoid the mistake of confusing cooperation and collaboration. While the process of collaborating can be uncomfortable and challenging, the results are well worth the investment.

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