Perspectives on Collaboration: David Chrislip, David Straus, and Paolo Freire on How and Why We Work Together

This essay is the second in a series written for HS711: “Collaborative Leadership” at College of the Atlantic.

Most people would agree that—in general—a group is more than just the sum of its parts.  Given that rule, as we look to tackle issues that affect more than one person, it makes sense for us to work together—to solve problems collaboratively—so that we can come up with solutions that are both more effective and more efficient that what we could do on our own.  Most people would also agree that doing so takes time, effort, and resources that our often limited.  For the same reasons that it’s important to collaborate, it’s also important to know how to do it well.  David Chrislip, David Straus, and Paolo Freire each offer us unique insights how collaboration works and why it’s so essential.  As Chrislip tells us, “appropriate, more responsive, and more innovative solutions than anyone images emerge through engagement.”[1]  Chrislip and Straus both approach collaboration from traditional standpoints: making teams work better together to resolve disputes, build consensus, and achieve a better product, service, mission, or even community by doing so.  Freire tackles the word (although he barely mentions it, if it all) from a more complicated standpoint: achieving human dignity through a collaborative—albeit revolutionary—process.  Collaboration is useful as a business and community development tool to achieve results, but more significantly, as a way of truly engaging with our constituency and building a stronger team, community, or even world as a part the process.  In the end, the art of collaboration becomes more important than achieving the actual goal we started out with in the first place.

In his book The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook, David Chrislip defines both basic concepts and critical requirements for collaboration to occur successfully.  Chrislip’s interest in working together stems from his involvement in Outward Bound, NOLS, and eventually consulting with Skillfull Means.  Comparing collaboration to other forms of working with others, he notes that: “Collaboration demands engagement, dialogue instead of debate, inclusion instead of exclusion, shared power instead of domination and control, and mutual learning instead of rigid adherence to mutually exclusive positions.”[2] Basic concepts include the need to ensure adaptability, establish a holding environment or process, facilitation, and consensus-based decision making.[3]  In the end, Chrislip offers us an introduction to collaboration through sound—yet adaptable—principles that he has clearly tested in many years of leadership positions and group facilitation.

While every collaboration is as unique and intricate as a snowflake, there are four critical requirements that Chrislip shares with us to serve as a basis for understanding of the practice.  First, we have to begin with a “constituency for change” that “reflects the perspectives, experiences, and concerns of the broader community.”[4]  Indeed, every author surveyed agrees that selecting the right people to form a group is often the most crucial and difficult task.  Once the group is established, collaboration takes place through process expertise, content experts, and facilitative leadership.

Straus also starts his five principles of collaboration with group forming.  He believes we must involve all “relevant stakeholders,” regardless of whether or (and especially) not we agree with them, not only because people who feel left out can hurt our chances of success, but because it’s the right thing to do.  He continues to say that “It’s a matter of basic respect for human dignity—a belief that people have the right to be involved in decisions that affect their lives.”[5]  Again, once the stakeholders are on board, collaboration occurs through consensus and well-developed processes.

His next steps include building consensus one step at a time and designing a process map, something that Straus believes stems from his training as an architect.  A process map is an aid that “helps people visualize a process, identify potential problems, and gain a sense of assurance that consensus building will be managed in an organized, methodical manner.”[6]  Who else to help the group design a process map but the process facilitator?  This person is serves as a process guide, a tool giver, neutral third-party, and process educator.[7]  By serving in all of these roles, the facilitator not only makes the group more likely to solve the problem it intended on solving, but ensures that it becomes more empowered for having gone through the process of doing so.  Finally, this empowerment must translate to momentum which is done by “harnessing the power of group memory,” often by simply recoding the group’s activities visually and in real time using chart pads and markers.[8]

Paolo Freire is an unlikely companion to Straus and Chrislip because much of his work centers on recognizing a dichotomy between those with and without power and helping those without power achieve it.  A Brazilian educator and philosopher by trade, Freire believed that education was a tool to use towards the achievement of social justice.  He was one of the earliest proponents of liberation theology—the belief that the church has a duty to end injustice against the poor—although this particular work does not have a strong religious focus.  Most times, it’s impossible to imagine the oppressed collaborating with the oppressors of Freire’s most widely recognized work: Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Nevertheless, much of the theory presented within that source involves tools and actions that revolve around working together with people in ways that ensure equitable distribution of power.  Like those we collaborate with, “it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and in their ability to reason.  Whoever lacks this trust will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue, reflection, and communication, and will fall into using slogans, communiqués, monologues, and instructions.”[9]  Done wrong, collaboration easily falls into the later of those options: a group of people that feels like it’s wasting its time, lacks empowerment to make change, and resents the “collaborative” process.  As Freire continues and Straus pointed out earlier, “To alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects.”[10]  The process of collaboration is necessary not because it is simply a more effective way of working together, but because we have a moral imperative to involve all of the stakeholders in any decision or conversation that has the potential to affect their lives.

Even when we have the best intentions in mind of the people that we propose to be serving by a particular program, decision, or process, we must involve them in the process.  Freire continues to remind us that, “It is not our role to speak to the people about our own view of the world, nor to attempt to impose that view on them, but rather to dialogue with the people about their view and ours.”[11]  In this case, dialogue is a way of establishing common ground about the past and where we stand today and building consensus towards a shared vision of the future.

The true nature of collaboration in Paolo Freire’s work is evident in his idea of praxis or the unification of theory and action.  Freire equates this term with liberation and describes praxis (and therefore liberation) as “the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.”[12]  Praxis solves one of the most pressing of group problems: the feeling that we are either acting too fast without enough thought or worse, that we’re expending massive amounts of energy to think about a problem that we never actually try to solve.  It requires all of the principles of collaboration that have been discussed previously and focuses them in a way that puts the process and results on equal levels of importance.

Our first priority whenever working with others is to do so in a way that involves all of the necessary voices, demands reflection, builds consensus, and inspires action.  As leaders, the process we use to collaborate becomes more important than the results we are hoping to achieve by collaborating in the first place.  Action however, is still a central part of this equation.  Collaboration is only useful if it is used as a tool to move the agenda forward.  We should approach collaboration hoping to achieve the most efficient and most effective product, but we also have to be prepared to risk failure, to manage that risk in a way that promotes future success, and to put the people we are working with in front of the goal we are hoping to achieve with them.

[1] David C. Chrislip, The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook: A Guide for Citizens and Civic Leaders (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 51.

[2] Chrislip, 41.

[3] Chrislip, 45.

[4] Chrislip, 52.

[5] David Straus, How to Make Collaboration Work: Powerful Ways to Build Consensus, Solve Problems, and Make Decisions (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002), 56.

[6] Straus, 97.

[7] Straus, 117.

[8] Straus, 141.

[9] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2005), 66.

[10] Freire, 85.

[11] Freire, 96.

[12] Freire, 79.

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