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The Seven Deadly Sins Of Collaboration

In the yin and yang universe of problem solving and decision-making, collaboration strategies have great appeal. They are friendlier, often more creative, and have the latent possibility of fashioning more enduring and tractable solutions. They also have limitations.

First, collaboration has to be a team sport. It requires players on the field and willing to participate in the game, which is not always possible. Second, it demands patience and political will, items that are sometimes in short supply. Third, there are no guarantees. If consensus isn’t reach, people are left frustrated and fatigued. If agreements are reached, they can be minimalist “Kumbaya” moments that regress to the lowest common mean.

In the punctuated equilibriums of organizations, nations or families, the two other alternatives to collaboration -– the blunt use of authority and/or free-for-all competition –- aren’t that great either. Each has an upside, each has a downside. Collaboration, however, has one other dark side which makes the waters of consensus-seeking murky and sometimes shark infested. It is easily gamed. The process can be defrauded either by sponsors and conveners, by facilitators and moderators, or by the players themselves. In short collaboration demands that sometimes fleeting and effervescent quality we call good faith.

Here then are seven venal temptations which like the Cardinal Sins of greed, sloth, gluttony, pride, lust, and the others, can defeat our noblest intentions.

1. Fait Accompli.

Literally, “an accomplished fact.” The sin: disguising a predetermined outcome inside a seemingly collaborative process. Players are convened (sometimes seduced) to participate, they work hard to negotiate, only to find key gatekeepers are checking a box and putting a participatory face on a decision made behind closed doors.

2. Hidden Money.

The sin: disguising or not disclosing the sources of funding for a collaborative effort, which might otherwise influence the decision by some to participate.

3. Stakeholder Omission.

The sin: intentionally excluding from participation one set of unpopular views, voices or perspectives. Sometimes there is a “club” of elites that prefers to keep decisions close at hand. In other instances there are extreme voices on the left or right who are perceived to be disruptive. In a few instances stakeholders are cherry picked to ensure that a deal is forthcoming.

4. Stacking the Deck.

The sin: employing a moderator or facilitator who cannot remain independent and who tilts the playing field in favor of a single perspective.

5. No Rules of Engagement.

The sin: not disclosing how decisions in a given collaboration will be made, how confidentiality and media relations will work, and where the negotiating authorities lie.

6. Excluding Information.

The sins: ensuring that certain kinds of information — economic, scientific, technical, historical, cultural or legal – are not given consideration.

7. Mischaracterizing the Results.

The sin: misrepresenting the outcome of a collaborative process to others without the group’s willingness or consent. In highly politicized or legalized contexts, nuances and subtleties matter.

“Sin” has subtle implications and extended meanings and, truthfully, I’m not so sure that lust and sloth belong on the original list anyway. The devil lies in the details. Still, people who encourage, convene, facilitate, and mediate or “gate keep” collaborations need a moral compass. Without one, we run the risk of seeing the very processes we want to encourage misused, vitiated and estranged.


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >

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