Collaborative Consultation: A Principled Foundation for Collective Excellence

The complexity of business today requires a range of talents far exceeding the capacity of any one person. No longer can leaders chart a path to the future based only on their own understanding and judgment. On the contrary, success has come to depend on leaders’ ability to gather a diversity of specialized talents and draw from them coherent and actionable strategies. As leaders are increasingly thrust into the role of facilitator among experts, the process of collective decision-making has become an essential component of organizational excellence.

Collective decision-making presents a curious paradox, however. Its great potential is well understood, but its outcomes are often held in strikingly low regard. Working and planning groups proliferate, but “written by committee” has become synonymous with uninspired mediocrity. Theorists extol the value of discussion and cooperation, but employees from top to bottom describe unproductive meetings, disinterested participants, and circular debate.

The disconnect between the ideals organizations strive for and the reality they face is clear; the reasons for it are considerably less so. In some cases, a lack of process strategies could be to blame. But a trip to the local bookstore suggests that, if anything, decision-makers face an overabundance of approaches, strategies, and step-by-step recipes for improving group functioning. The real issue, it seems, lies far more in the attitudes people bring to the process of working together toward a commonly-held goal. The major sticking point, in other words, is not so much what people do in groups, but who they are in groups.

In addressing this nebulous challenge with client organizations, we have identified a constellation of principles that can significantly improve the quality and efficacy of group interactions. These principles, which we refer to collectively as collaborative consultation, comprise not a set of skills, but rather a collection of beliefs, values, and mindsets. Together, they not only establish a foundation for productive group functioning, but also provide a filter for leaders to examine the effects of their own attitudes and behaviors.

Objective Inquiry

Groups are convened to solve problems and find solutions. Unfortunately, the dynamics that drive them are often heavily shaped by the limited agendas and narrow self interests of individual members. Personal aggrandizement, departmental prestige, power politics, and the like often eclipse the formal mandate of a group and quickly squander its resources and energy. Though widely accepted as an unavoidable part of “the way business gets done,” these dynamics become ingrained habits — nearly invisible in their operation but powerful in their effects — that reduce efficiency and perpetuate chronic division.

Collaborative consultation counteracts these tendencies by defining group decision-making in terms of a collaborative inquiry into “reality.” This reality could be the cause of a vexing problem, the risks of a given course of action, or the best route to a desired goal. But the fundamental objective, regardless of the particulars involved, lies in discovering the facts on the ground and coming to a consensus about what actually is regardless of the interests furthered or frustrated.

Non-Ownership of Ideas

In most decision-making situations, ideas are highly proprietary. Suggestions contributed to the group “belong” to the person who offered them, for better or worse. People’s allies will tend to favor them, their rivals will criticize them, and they will defend them with great passion, for the success or failure of those ideas is perceived to reflect directly on their own reputation and status.

These dynamics are common but highly toxic to assessing merit and determining worth. Because of the inherent conflict in trying to support both the right ideas and the right people, collaborative consultation rests on the non-ownership (or more accurately, the collective ownership) of ideas. In this framework thoughts that have been introduced to a discussion belong only to the group itself, to be taken up, discarded, or revised as best serves its needs and requirements. Those who put forth ideas make a concerted effort to relinquish personal attachment and remain objective. Other participants strive to evaluate contributions on merit alone and without regard to their originators. And all view themselves as members of a collective body with aims and objectives that supercede their own — a challenging proposition that lies at the very heart of effective group functioning.

Candor and Courtesy

To effectively achieve their aims, decision-making groups must exercise both courtesy and candor. Courtesy ensures that all participants are treated with respect. It prevents the group from becoming sidetracked by perceived slights and reinforces the collaborative environment most conducive to efficient, productive functioning. And when discussion strays into conflict or contention (which happens in every group), courtesy provides the means by which members can best refocus on the task at hand.

But candor is equally important. When addressing complex problems, it is vital that all stakeholders feel it is not only their right, but their duty to share honestly-held views. Every participant, while scrupulously observing the requirements of tact and sensitivity, should feel the utmost freedom to express his or her thoughts for the benefit of the group. As they do, however, they must remember that they are only one voice among many. Candor must not be used as an excuse for stubbornness, nor honesty as a pretext for personal criticism.

The Clash of Differing Opinions

Any atmosphere of frank and open discussion is bound to produce a variety of conflicting viewpoints. Not only is this desirable, it is absolutely essential, for these differences of opinion, when approached constructively, reveal unexamined assumptions and bring to light new paths forward. The shining spark of truth, it has been said, comes forth only after the clash of differing opinions.

Consultation does not shy away from differences, but it very pointedly distinguishes between the clash of opinions and the clash of personalities. We have all witnessed the latter and know how thoroughly it can hamstring otherwise effective groups. When ideas conflict, merit can be weighed and clarity emerges. When personalities conflict, however, egos come to the fore, positions become entrenched and inflexible, and substantive progress on practical issues becomes difficult if not impossible.

Whole-Hearted Support

Consultation aims to not only find the best solution, but to do so with the support of the most stakeholders possible. Unanimity is the goal, but this is not always possible. Sometimes full consensus cannot be reached, and decisions must be made on the weight of majority opinion.

Such situations often result in a contingent of “winners” who support an outcome, and a faction of “losers” who withdraw from the process or hinder its implementation. Each side blames the other for setbacks, and both contribute to a highly polarized atmosphere in which realistically assessing the development of ongoing plans becomes almost impossible.

To avoid this pitfall, collaborative consultation calls on every participant — particularly those in opposition — to give whole-hearted support to the final decision of the group. As all members forged the decision through the interplay of their views, both for and against, all are equally represented by it, and all share responsibility for implementing its provisions.

The idea of a dissenting minority and a crowing majority finds no place when all are jointly committed to a single effort that incorporates and synthesizes a variety of views.

Such whole-hearted support requires trust in the process, particularly when a person feels a decision is truly unwise. But even then, the most effective response is not opposition, but support. When all stakeholders make good-faith efforts toward a common course of action, its worth soon becomes apparent to all involved. If the approach proves successful, the lingering misgivings of skeptics can be definitively laid to rest. If it falters, the underlying weaknesses can be more clearly identified, and the group can, in unity, determine if a new direction is needed. But only through the support of all members can the group move past ideologically-clouded antagonism to accurately assess the results of its efforts.

The Choice and the Challenge

Although its principles can be adopted by a group, collaborative consultation is far less a strategy to be employed than a challenge to be accepted (or refused) by every individual person. Focusing on attitudes, values, and beliefs, it asks questions that can only be answered for one’s self: Will you personally — today, in this situation — set aside your desire for recognition or hard feelings from the past to advance the aims of the group? Will you make an effort to remain detached from the ideas you contribute? Will you focus on facts over personalities and whole-heartedly support the considered opinion of your associates?

Or will you not?

The “right” answer, of course, is as plain as day. But the real question concerns the extent to which that answer is practically and consistently operationalized in a person’s day-to-day interactions. Collaborative consultation involves intellectual understanding and formal agreement, but it is primarily a disciplined act of will. To make any real difference, its elements must be raised to a point of principle. They must be applied when it is not to one’s immediate advantage and chosen even when they conflict with cherished desires. Anyone can support a decision he or she would have championed anyway, but not until these principles are applied in those tough, I-don’t-want-to situations do group dynamics and patterns of interaction really begin to transform.

The success of any endeavor is directly dependent on the extent to which its members can effectively work together toward a shared vision of the future. Though we may have acclimated to environments of self-interest, achieving true collective excellence will require leaders and non-leaders alike to both expand their frame of reference and take a much harder look at their own choices and behaviors. Collaborative consultation is not a panacea, nor is it necessarily easy. But not only can it dramatically improve the efficacy of group decision-making, it can build organizations equipped to fully tap their human potential and bring it to bear on the many challenges that lie ahead.

by Mark Scheffer, Alan Scheffer, and Nancy Braun

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