Collaborative Leadership Basics, Part 4: Keys to the Boat — Generating Positive Interdependence in Groups

Originally published by Cutter Consortium 5 October 2006. Republished by permission.

by Christopher M. Avery, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

In my last Advisor ("Collaborative Leadership Basics, Part 3: Get in the Same Boat Together," 31 August 2006), I suggested that "outcome interdependence," or the feeling of being in the same boat together, is the number-one predictor of successful collaboration and teamwork. In this Advisor, I offer some keys for how you can get people in the same boat together.Let's start with a brief concept review. Recall that "positive interdependence" describes the condition where I get closer to my goals when you work toward yours and vice versa. How does outcome interdependence relate to positive interdependence? Usually the first condition is sufficient to create the second; i.e., if our fates are obviously linked, then we tend to choose to complement each other's efforts. "Negative interdependence" arises when we feel like our work is at cross purposes such that your pursuit of your goals threatens my ability to accomplish mine. So we fight because we're in each other's way and see each other as the problem.

In general, we managers and leaders foster way too many feelings of negative interdependence in our organizations, as an unintended consequence of compartmentalization, role clarity, single-point accountability, budgeting, and sub-optimization — all in the name of organizational efficiency. All these people running around in each other's way! Then we call alignment meetings to attempt to find some positive interdependence.

This may be an oversimplification, but the existence of, and drama created by, negative interdependence remains undeniable. But people's behavior changes organically and instantly the moment we feel like we are in the same boat together. We stop complaining and fighting for dominance, and we start supporting one another, coordinating with each other, giving and asking for help, and making our contributions toward the whole.

So perceptions matter. A lot. This is really about the psychology of work, not the actual design of work. Think about it.

The first key to getting in the same boat together is to stop shining your 1,000,000-candle-power spotlight on the pieces and start shining it on the whole. Spotlight the collective outcome (or goal, task, mission, objective, purpose — choose your favorite word) and hold it there while using just your tiny pen-light to illuminate the myriad assignments. Pursue that focus with the group, regardless of the size, until you achieve a condition I call "shared task clarity." That condition is reached when everyone's got it — i.e., each individual is completely clear about what the collective must achieve together. Only when that happens can everyone also stop worrying about whether others are working at cross-purposes to them.

The second key is to solicit help shining the light. Many of us attempt to clarify the bigger picture by independently crafting and sending a message — perhaps a statement of vision, mission, or purpose. If this achieves the desired condition, fine. Most of the time it doesn't. Usually a dialog process, sometimes ongoing, that invites people into the process of pursuing shared task clarity is much more successful. Think of how project managers attend to this goal alignment step near the beginning of a project. True leaders understand the condition they must achieve (perceptions of shared task clarity), while others merely check off the "purpose statement" action item.

The third key is to know the standard you are striving to achieve. Here's mine — it's in the form of a question that the group (project team, staff group, partnership, etc.) must reach consensus on: What must we do together that is bigger than each of us, requires all of us, and none of us can claim individual victory until it is done?

The fourth key is to learn to observe the immediate and organic behavioral shift in people when you — and they — have successfully achieved this condition. That's the art and science of collaborative leadership.

Next time: Why Project Teams Are Easier to Build Than Management Teams
Send your questions about developing a collaborative leadership culture to me at and I'll address them in future Advisors.

— Christopher M. Avery, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

Posted in Collaboration on 10/07/2006 10:28 pm
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