Learning Collaboration

How do we teach people to work in a collaborative manner? How do we help individuals, in our incredibly individualist and competitive society, to learn the skills needed for agile teamwork?


Start with the Kids

Our school system, here in the West, is strongly oriented to individual grading, work, and even competition. We throw our kids into age-limited classrooms where they are inevitably compared to one another and learn to make the comparisons themselves. There are private schools which don’t do this: no grading, mixed-age classrooms, but they are the exception by far.

It seems reasonable to me that if we could help our kids learn collaborative skills, they would at least have a foundation to build upon and minds that were more open to the possibilities.

In my mind, the best way to do this consists of two aspects: collective efforts and human capacity development.

Collective Efforts

Kids are amazing at learning. If they have experiences, they naturally learn to cope with those experiences. It follows then, that even if children start out with little or no skill in collective, collaborative work, then simply by putting them into situations where that type of work is required, they will learn at least some of the necessary skills.

I had two experiences in my childhood that helped me learn those skills. In my faith community, as a Baha’i, we had children’s classes (kinda like Sunday school) where we played many collaborative games and learned about the Baha’i concept of consultation. I didn’t particularly like the games, but nevertheless, they made an impression on my young mind. I even remember at one point when I was a little older learning to help out with these games. The things I learned about group decision making through consultation made a big impact on me and have become more and more important as I progressed through school and professional life.

The second experience was in my public school where I was streamed into a program for academically talented children. I think the idea was that if you had an IQ of 120 or over you were eligible for the program. I remember doing an IQ test in grade four. Anyway, the program was excellent in many ways. In grades seven and eight we started to learn Edward deBono’s CoRT thinking skills program. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but many of the exercises were small group exercises where two or three or four of us had to work together. Again, I learned a great deal about the value of working with people with different skills and ideas, and how to do this in a systematic way. Many of the exercises and techniques that I use as a coach and trainer are based on or inspired by these exercises I did as a child.

Human Capacity Development

I recently wrote here about truthfulness. Aside from the obvious implications for agile methods that I have written about, there is another level to this concept.

Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues – Baha’u’llah.

There is no doubt in my mind that some of the basic virtues or moral ideas that we are supposed to learn in childhood are critical to effective collaboration. For example, the “Golden Rule“: “And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself.” Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p30.

The trouble is, you can’t do the Golden Rule effectively without being truthful. How so? Well, if you can’t be truthful about what you really want for yourself, deep, deep down, then chances are you aren’t going to do to others what they truly want. Knowing your own self at the deepest level is a pre-condition to following the Golden Rule effectively. And knowing your own self deeply requires a level of truthfulness that most of us are not accustomed to.

The same could be said about almost any other virtue or capacity required for collaboration: courage, humility, assertiveness, compassion, etc.

Of course, developing these capacities is something that doesn’t happen overnight. The starting point is to look at what we can be truthful about, and building on that. As we practice these capacities in our relationships with other people, they will strengthen and we will set out on a path of improvement. It is helpful to have other people working with us; to support us, encourage us, and to help us honestly face up to our failures and learn from them. It also helps to have guidance that can be trusted. Searching for these sources of guidance is an important part of developing professionally as well as personally, whether it is a mentor, an author or some other figure.

These capacities are essential to our ability to work well together. The root cause of most of our failures to work together can be traced back to a lack of or failure to exercise these human capacities. For example, a lack of courage can lead to a failure to experiment. A lack of humility can lead to a failure to ask for help.


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