Adam Kahane’s new book - ‘Collaborating with the Enemy’ - is a must for anyone having to collaborate with diverse others whatever the context. Indeed, it should be recommended reading on leadership programmes where there is a need to work across organisational and/or cultural boundaries. With the economic situation as it is, collaboration is fundamental to the sustainability of services.
To begin with oneself...' is a maxim that can trip glibly off the tongue, but Adam takes us below the surface. With honesty, humility and pragmatism he shows why we must change ourselves before we can reach out and fully connect with others who don't share our view.
"Collaborating with others, especially others who we do not agree with or like or trust us, requires us to join with them as equals".
Many of the case studies in the book relate to ‘high stakes’ fraught and sometimes warring situations. However, I would urge the reader not to be put off thinking that ‘Collaborating with the Enemy’ is less relevant if their collaborative assignments are more in the mainstream. I struggled with the language initially, especially ‘enemy’ and ‘fight’. However, having read all of Adam’s previous books I’ve always found something that resonates with my work in an organisational context. They prod and challenge. They change the conversations.
When faced with the need to work with others who hold opposing views Adam maintains that we tend to assume one of four positions. We collaborate, force, adapt or exit. However, our work environments nowadays are so complex that conventional notions of collaboration can be too limited.
He introduces the concept of ‘stretch collaboration’ which abandons the assumption of control. Writing for Open Democracy Adam explains that the approach involves:
"embracing not only connection but also conflict; experimenting our way forward; and stepping into the game, willing to change oneself. It means embracing plural wholes, plural possibilities, and plural co-creators”.
He challenges any expectation that there should be harmony, certainty, and compliance and instead encourages us to embrace messy realities of discord, trial and error and co-creation.
The image of standing together as equals is compelling. But to feel equal we have to be able to advocate for our own position (fight) as well as listen and respect the other. Without advocacy there's unlikely to be much of 'my position' in the collaborative outcome, causing resentment and an uneasy alliance at best. Equally without willingness to yield and reconsider one’s position there is little likelihood of a satisfactory outcome in the longer term.
Distorted Perceptions of the Other
Managing the dance between advocacy and yielding is not something we’re taught. We react instinctively and emotionally when faced with organisational restructures such as mergers. We distrust the motives of the ‘other’ simply because they’re on the other side of the fence. What generates this behaviour? What turns otherwise open-minded and open-hearted people into suspicious zealots of control? The answer is nearly always hidden in the system as relational dynamics and when this is the case, conventional approaches will rarely work.
Nothing about collaboration is easy but getting to know ourselves better is a good place to start. Understanding how we show up in collaborative ventures; our default patterns and behaviours can help us to be more choiceful in how we engage.
A note about Adam’s process.....
In writing the book Adam employed a method of ‘writing out loud’. He wrote a chapter each month for the best part of a year and invited people to review and comment on what he’d produced. A rather unique way of modelling collaboration.
Along with many others I engaged enthusiastically with the process. The cycle of reading, reflecting and responding to drafts pushed me to think deeply about my work with organisational leaders who are grappling with complex collaborative situations. It was an enriching experience. Brave of Adam to do it and humbling to be part of the experiment.
Naturally I would recommend the book. Not just because of my involvement though. Adam’s writing is compelling, practical and infused with humility.