Good collaboration: the critical unspoken question
When a group reviews how well they are collaborating they usually discuss two questions: Is it working for us? and Is it working for me? I suggest they have missed a third totally crucial question, Does it feel fair?
Much has been written about why people collaborate and the pay-offs. Key concepts include Tit for Tat and The Prisoners Dilemma discussed in Dysfunctional teams: bioteam them.
In this article I introduce three critical tests which I call the '3 greens check' by which any collaboration should be continuously judged by all its participants:
Test1: Is it working for us?
Test2: Is it working for me?
Test3: Does it feel fair?
Does your collaboration pass the 'three greens' check
Every time an airline pilot selects the undercarriage to 'down' they hold their breath to see three green lights which tell them it is safe to land.
Then as they continue their final approach the runway threshold will be indicated by green lights with the end of the runway illuminated by red lights.
Imagine 3 parties A, B and C who individually can achieve a, b and c respectively:
Collective Success = 1-green
If by collaborating together they achieve d where d > a+b+c then overall it is a successful collaboration.
I call this a 1-green collaboration.
However we know that there are examples of good overall collaborations (1-green) which still fail miserably because one or more of the parties were not happy.
Individual Success = 2-greens
Therefore we also need to consider the collaboration outcome from the perspective of each of the 3 parties.
So if A achieves a+ where a+ > a then it is good from their perspective
If they only achieve a or a- then it is not good from their perspective.
In fact this is the risk of collaboration in a nutshell - you already have 'a' - by collaborating you hope to achieve 'a+' but the risk is you may end up with 'a-'.
So a good collaboration achieves d (>a+b+c) AND all of the parties achieve a+ individually.
I call this a 2-greens collaboration.
Strictly speaking not all parties have to achieve a+ - however the ones that do not are likely to leave or become passive freeriders.
This can destroy the overall collaboration by eliminating key resources.
Perception of Fairness = 3-greens
However even these 2-green collaborations can fail if there is a perception that one party has done a lot better than another.
So if A perceives that B has achieved b++ which is much greater than their a+ then it will cause resentment.
Yes my pie may be bigger by collaborating - but yours is enormous so I am not happy.
I am prepared to lose my benefits rather than see you taking more than your fair share.
So where all the parties also perceive fairness I call this a 3-greens collaboration.
This is discussed further in Why do humans cooperate which describes how, in human society, without perceived fairness cooperation breaks down.
There is also some interesting research on animal behaviour which shows that perception of fairness is a universal concept which is shared across many species and not just humankind. See, for example, The economics of cooperative behavior - HOW LIVING CREATURES DO BUSINESS
To sum up
There are 3 questions everyone should ask and answer for themselves at the end of each collaborative meeting - did it work for us all, did it work for me and does it feel fair?
A good 3-greens collaboration needs to produce three things:
- A collective outcome which is greater than the individual player outcomes combined - 1-green
- A better individual outcome for the majority of the players and a worse outcome for none of them - 2-greens
- A perception in the participants that the individual player's outcomes are all in proportion and fair - 3-greens
For a very rigorous and thorough treatment of the complexity of collaboration involving multiple parties read The Complexity of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod
An earlier version of this article was originally published on www.bioteams.com on September, 2007
About the Author
Ken Thompson is an expert practitioner in the area of bioteaming, swarming, virtual enterprise networks, virtual professional communities and virtual teams and has published two landmark books:
Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature's Best Designs
The Networked Enterprise: Competing for the future through Virtual Enterprise Networks
Ken writes the highly popular bioteams blog which has over 500 articles on all aspects of bioteams (aka organizational biomimicry) - in other words how human groups can learn from nature's best teams.
Ken is also founder of an exciting European technology company Swarmteams which provides unique patent-pending bioteaming technologies for all shapes and sizes of groups, social networks, business clusters, virtual/mobile communities and enterprises. Swarmteams enables groups to be more responsive and agile by fully integrating their mobile phones and the web with bioteam working techniques. The latest Swarmteams implementation is SwarmTribes which helps musicians and bands form a unique collaboration with their fans for mutual benefit.
Bioteams Books Reviews
Leading complexity thinkers apply biological principles to enterprises: The Biology of Business is a set of essays by ten researchers and practitioners in Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS).