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.

Effective Leadership, Followership, and In Between

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

At some point or another, whether through function or position, everybody has been a leader.  When I began to think about my practice and receipt of leadership, I turned to my application to the Coast Guard’s Officer Candidate School, one of the rare occasions after graduating from Bowdoin that I was asked to articulate my beliefs on effective leadership.  In that application, I wrote that “those leaders who I respect most have the same amount of respect for me, are great teachers and experts at what they do, and finally, have an ability to take charge during critical moments that put an entire team to the test.”  Just over two years later, a lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same.  I have worked as Executive Director of Mano en Mano | Hand in Hand, enlisted as a Boatswain’s Mate in the Coast Guard Reserve, and participated in a many situations where you could clearly call me the person-in-charge and many where you could call me a follower.  I’ve seen some things that work and I’ve learned from things that didn’t.   That being said, I still believe in what I wrote: respect, demonstrated capacity and knowledge (expertise), charisma, clear direction, and confidence are still vital traits of effective leaders.  The practice of effective leadership is never in the absence of effective followership, requires an understanding of human dynamics and problem solving, and is never the same in different situations.

Before anybody can lead, they must first learn how to follow, or so the saying goes.  Many of my beliefs on what makes an effective leader come from moments when I was an effective follower.  While leadership isn’t about simply telling people where to go and having them get there, it does involve having followers consciously realize that they are making progress towards a specific goal (which can, of course, be a lofty ideal).  When I was part of a team that accomplished something remarkable (or mundane), I knew that we were moving in the right direction even as that direction was being established.  I felt like I was contributing towards the solution of a problem and that I was a valued member of a team.  I knew who to turn do when I had questions, but I didn’t feel like I was being micro-managed—I was responsible for making decisions even though I wasn’t the final decision maker.

On the other hand, I’ve been in situations where I knew I was an ineffective follower and situations when I knew I was being led by an ineffective leader.  Those examples bring back memories of knowing I was moving in a specific direction, thinking that it was the wrong place to go, but not being able (or willing) to do anything about it.  Ineffective as they may have been, the people taking me on those journeys were still leaders, albeit either inexperienced, arrogant, lacking sufficient knowledge of what we were doing, unable to see the next step, unwilling to delegate, or a combination of the five.  Other times, I was being led by an effective leader, but towards an impossible or fruitless goal.  And finally, there were times when I was the problem—when I wouldn’t put in enough effort, couldn’t support the stated goal, or simply just didn’t say no to something I knew I couldn’t do.

Effective leaders are able (with practice) to recognize ineffective followership and other potential results of bringing a group of people together to work on a particular problem.  In fact, I’ve found (as a leader) that it’s usually more important to focus on the human dynamics portion of the equation than solving the actual problem.  After all, if I could truly solve the problem on my own, I wouldn’t need a team to work on it.  Working collaboratively requires more effort than working alone, but when done correctly, it always produces more effective and more efficient solutions. I’ve led successful teams by starting with common understanding, inspiring commitment, valuing strengths, recognizing weaknesses, assigning responsibility, and relinquishing control.  Not surprisingly, I’ve led unsuccessful groups of people because I failed to get everybody on the same page, assumed that a group knew how to work together (when it never had before), maintained too much control, or ignored obvious interpersonal conflicts.

Keeping the above in mind, there’s one final principle that I’d like to discuss and that’s my observation that effective leadership often cannot be replicated.  What solved one problem will not necessarily solve another and what inspired one group to action will not necessarily inspire another.  What defines one personal as an effective leader may define another person as unproductive.  Effective leadership is adaptable to a world of ever-changing dynamics and problems.  Focusing on the tools and process is important, but not at the expense of loosing unique moments of organic development that occur when you put the right group of people together under the right circumstances.  Once that happens, leadership is all about fine-tuning those circumstances and helping people arrive at a moment of praxis—when they are simultaneously thinking and doing—while at the same time having people arrive at a solution that they believe to be truly their own.

Sumner J. Yaffe: May 9, 1923-August 10,2011

Sumner J. Yaffe, 1923-2011

Invitation: Sumner J. Yaffe Memorial Lecture Series in Pediatric Clinical Pharmacology.

I haven’t been back here to write in a long time and today I return to put into writing some of the thoughts I have about one of the most important people in my life: Sumner J. Yaffe, known to me more simply as Dad.

When I look back at the past twenty-five years that I’ve known him, Chinese Food is one of the first things that comes to mind.  He always had his place and you’d have better luck getting him to go anywhere else.  I guess you could say he could be a little stubborn once he made up his mind… Some of my favorite memories are sitting across the table for hours in a restaurant that was clearly designed for a faster meal.  My other favorite memories are from one of the only places I’ve ever dared to call home: Martha’s Vineyard.

In his own way, my Dad was there for me all the time and supported me in ways that I am just beginning to understand.  Not content to simply have his kids grow up in his image, he gave us space to explore the world and find out what truly makes us happy.  And explore the world we did; often at this side as he traveled to the far corners in pursuit of improved heathcare for children.  He was beyond modest, never really telling me how remarkable of a career he had because he was always more interested in what I was doing: whether that meant what’s for dinner, what the weather was doing that day, whether or not I had heat in my apartment, where my next trip was going to be, or what the next step in my life was.  I don’t think he ever disagreed with a major decision I made – even when I decided to gamble my degree on a trip to Cuba – he just wanted to know that I was all set.

He was so proud of his kids and so incredibly happy to see us all together again – for Chinese food – just two weeks ago.  And I’m so proud of him.  He was unbelievably smart, (apparently) very charming, a world traveler, deeply caring, remarkably funny, easily predictable, committed to the common good, naturally inquisitive, dedicated to his family, and determined to live his life to the fullest.  It’s hard for me to think of a fuller life than the one he lived and so while I miss him today, I know that he is finally at peace, and that he will live on in so many ways.

Below is a more formal summary of his life, from the Pediatric Pharmacy Advocacy Group.

Dr. Sumner Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, graduated from Boston Latin School, and Harvard College (with an interruption during World War II to serve in the Armed Forces). He received his BA in chemistry, then pursued an MA in Pharmacology at Harvard, and finally his MD from the University of Vermont. He returned to Harvard to complete his pediatric training at Children’s Hospital in Boston. After a Fulbright Scholarship at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, and a fellowship in metabolism at Harvard, he joined the faculty at Stanford University as Director of the Clinical Research Center for Premature Infants. It is here that his interest in neonatal pharmacology grew. In 1963, he moved to SUNY Buffalo as Professor of Pediatrics and Adjunct Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology. In 1975, he moved to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to establish the first Division of Pediatric Clinical Pharmacology.

During his distinguished academic career, he published upwards of 300 scientific articles and books dealing with a wide range of developmental science. His work included studies on the ontogeny of drug metabolizing enzymes, including effects of malnutrition, vitamins, protein intake, and drugs on drug metabolism in the developing fetus and child, bilirubin metabolism, and the excretion of drugs in breast milk. He inspired and mentored countless young pediatric investigators who owe much of their career directions to his teaching.

In 1980, Dr. Yaffe took the position as Director of the Center for Research for Mothers and Children at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. During his 20 years at NICHD, Dr. Yaffe’s vision for improved pharmacotherapy for children came to fruition. He tirelessly pursued an agenda for increased research in diseases of childhood. He fostered the development of research networks including a neonatal and fetal/maternal medicine network, and most crucial to pediatric and developmental pharmacology, the Pediatric Pharmacology Research Units.

Dr. Yaffe’s vision of improved therapy for sick children has become a reality. He inspired an entire generation of pediatric clinical pharmacologists to grow the field into a mature and evolving scientific discipline. The Pediatric Pharmacy Advocacy Group named its lifetime achievement award in pediatric pharmacology and therapeutics after him.

A scholarship at the University of Vermont has been set up in his honor, ensuring that yet another (and another) generation of doctors will grow up with his guidance.


Portland Press Herald: “Invest in nonprofits and save”

According to a recent report by the Maine Association of Nonprofits (MANP) and corresponding article on the Portland Press Herald, “if Maine really wants to save money, a new report suggests an investment in the nonprofit sector would bring big dividends.”

“Non-profits are the state’s second-largest employer and already provide millions in savings in areas such as health care.”

Read the full article here.

“Key findings of in the new report, based on the most recent data available:

  • Maine nonprofit organizations add $8.2 billion to the Maine economy annually. That represents 17 percent of the state’s gross product, which is greater than the manufacturing and construction industries combined;
  • Maine nonprofits employ one in seven workers, making the sector the second largest employer in Maine behind retail;
  • More than half of Maine’s 6,315 registered nonprofits are small, with annual incomes of less than $25,000.”

Happy Holidays

Despite a brief morning snowstorm that only affected Downeast Maine and a power outage that only affected our side of town during the afternoon, last night we celebrated the holidays at Mano en Mano during our potluck and posada.  A posada is a Mexican cultural tradition that takes place in December, and in context means “hospitality” or welcoming friends in for a meal and festivities.  Over 70 people attended the event which was complete with music, delicious homemade food, games, and even a nonprofit director playing musical chairs (I made it almost halfway).

As towns across the country do everything in their power to shut their doors to immigrant families, our region stands apart by formally welcoming them.  What began 15 years ago as a project out of the Milbridge Library has now grown to an independent nonprofit complete with 4 year-round staff and 6 apartments in progress.

What we do at Mano en Mano | Hand in Hand is much more than teach English, build affordable housing, interpret, and ensure equal access to social services.  It is our mission to build a stronger Downeast Maine and we do that by building bridges of understanding, appreciation, and community through our programming.  Last night was a wonderful example of those efforts.

Thank you to everyone who is a part of this special community; it has been my honor to serve you during the past 8 months.

Happy holidays and all the best for 2011.