Without the right underlying values, you can’t collaborate
Whenever we talk about collaboration we tend to talk about quite specific actions:
- Let’s put all these people in one room!
- Let’s hold regular knowledge sharing!
- Let’s put this information online so everyone can use it!
- Let’s create team incentives!
These actions are good because they are simple, direct, and give us a sense of control. The problem is that none of these actions work if the people involved don’t share an underlying set of pro-collaboration values.
Because the decisions that really count actually happen inside people’s hearts and minds, and they are fundamentally values-driven. They are the decisions whether to say something or be silent, whether to concede a point or protest one, whether to pay attention to a person or not.
We think there are five important values for collaboration
The way that we work at Liquid, we think in terms of five collaborative values:
These values are in a specific order; each builds to the next. And while there is some overlap, each is distinct; each value addresses a different barrier to collaboration.
Before we expand on each value in detail, there are some general points we think are important to understand.
Values are actions, not objects
Organisations tend to talk about values as things, as static objects, like trophies won and now on display in a cabinet: “Behold! Our corporate values are innovation, service, and excellence! Gaze upon them! But don’t touch the glass!”
But the value in values is to be found when we treat them not as things, but as actions—as things we do. The value is in the continual act of valuing.
Every value is a matter of degree
We approach values with different levels of intensity.
Like riding a bike, it’s a matter of balance: you can value not at all, you can value absolutely, or anywhere in between.
In general, the Goldilocks principle applies—a moderate approach to each value is best. Both undervaluing or overvaluing any of the five values is likely bad for collaboration.
For example, if you have zero interest in truth, that’s going to be a barrier to establishing a shared, fact-based reality with your collaborators. But equally, if you value truth so much that you cannot take action until you are absolutely sure of the facts, then you may never take action at all—which is a barrier to creating a solution to the problem you’re working on.
Of course there’s lots of latitude in that—sometimes leaning one way or another might be necessary, or at least not harmful—but as a rule of thumb, we think that balance is best.
Values aren’t discrete; they overlap
Each of the values in our framework is there for a specific reason, and is distinct from the others. However they do overlap. For example, you’ll notice that craft is at some level a variation on diversity, which is itself a variation on truth and detail.
This overlap is reflective of a complex underlying reality—there are a lot of factors at play.
The value in a framework like this isn’t in providing a rigid step-by-step formula, it’s in highlighting a set of dials that can explain your current situation and give you clues about how to influence it in a meaningful way.
The five collaboration values
To achieve something greater than yourself, you need to put your personal desires aside in the service of the mission you are working towards.
But there are good reasons not to do that! Self-sacrifice sucks. Giving up on our own desires for status, money, power, time, whatever—it feels bad; almost wrong.
On the other hand, it’s possible to over-value selflessness. You don’t want to obliterate yourself. Your self is what comes up with ideas; it’s what brings history and expertise to an endeavour. Denying your self, your ego, your identity isn't helpful in a collaboration because it leaves no you to collaborate with.
So we usually need to find a balance. Valuing selflessness means reflecting on your own motivations—particularly when you feel threatened or aggressive—and figuring out what is driving you.
Let’s say you’ve put your self-interest aside in order to collaborate on a shared problem. To actually solve that problem, you need to know the truth—meaning the reality of the situation you are dealing with.
Are we on time? Are we on budget? Is this solution actually working? In any complex endeavour there are many things we need to know the truth about.
But is everyone happy to find out the truth? Not really!
That’s because truth can be painful. It’s often inconvenient, frustrating, disappointing. It thwarts our ambitions. And since we don’t like pain, we have good reason to not value it. We might even deny it altogether—take shelter in fantasy.
That said, it’s possible to overvalue truth. In a complex situation, the kind that requires genuine collaboration, there are always unknowns, meaning you can never be certain—and never really know any absolute ‘truth’. And if you need absolute certainty before you act, you may miss your window of opportunity.
Valuing truth means being willing to seek out and accept bad news in order to get a better understanding of reality, while also being willing to act in the face of unknowns.
If you want the truth, you have to be willing to get into details. You can’t meaningfully assess or act on the truth if you don’t understand the details that make up that version of reality.
But getting across detail takes time and effort. It can be boring, inconvenient, overwhelming. It requires slowing down, shifting focus. So again, plenty of reasons to not want to do it.
And at the other end of the spectrum: you can’t know everything. As with truth, you don’t want to overvalue detail to the extent that you get trapped trying to gather endless data.
Valuing detail means investing time and effort to understand what’s really going on, while also drawing a line on how much detail you need and when you need it by, so you are able to take timely action.
Since we’ve got this basic epistemological problem—you can’t know everything—we need to get to a best-guess understanding of our situation as efficiently as we can. The best way to do that is to sample a diverse range of experiences and perspectives.
However, diversity can be painful in its own way. If you are genuinely sampling diverse perspectives, it means you are probably talking to people you don’t relate to, don’t agree with, don’t even particularly like. That can be uncomfortable, awkward, and something you want to avoid.
Then you have the problem of everyone’s input. What do you do with all these divergent perspectives? What if they contradict each other? How do you determine who’s right? There’s no point including diverse perspectives if you can’t synthesize them in some way, and that can be an overwhelming task in its own right.
So there are plenty of reasons why you might not value diversity: too uncomfortable, too noisy, too overwhelming.
And on the other hand it’s possible to overvalue diversity: you can spend all your time consulting larger and larger audiences, generating more information than you can meaningfully synthesise, and potentially diminishing your own authority to the point that you can no longer make leadership decisions.
Valuing diversity means incorporating diverse perspectives to help build a detailed picture of reality while acknowledging that that picture will never be perfect, and maintaining the ability to take timely action.
There’s no point collaborating if you can’t deliver, and that takes craft skills.
But having craft skills is not the same as valuing craft.
Valuing craft means valuing the time and effort it takes to acquire skill and valuing the opinion of craftspeople.
Both of these can be painful. Craft skills require time, effort, and probably money, both to develop and to hire. And the opinions from craftspeople are often full of bad news: it can’t be done, it’ll be 3x as expensive, it’ll fill up with ants, etc. It’s pretty tempting to value cutting corners and only accepting what you want to hear.
This is particularly a problem for management in large organisations. Managers will often say they value craftspeople or operational workers, but they actually value the results of a transaction: “I give you my wishes, and you make them real. If you don’t, I get angry.”
As always, it’s possible to over-value craft, to defer all decisions to experts and take what they say as gospel. But this creates its own problems. Experts don’t know everything—for instance, they may not know the priorities or constraints of other collaborators. And expertise itself creates convention, which can sometimes be a trap.
Valuing craft means wanting to invest in expertise and listening to experts while also challenging and testing their thinking, and sometimes providing constraints that push them beyond conventional “best practice” responses.
How these five values work together
These five values aren’t just an arbitrary list. Each builds on the last:
- To even get started on an effective collaboration, you need to value selflessness. This is one of the most personal, ambient and intangible of the values, and probably the most common point of failure.
- Having put your personal needs aside in the service of a greater common goal, you need to understand the reality of your situation, which means valuing truth and wanting to seek out bad news.
- To get to the truth, you need to value detail, which requires effort and patience while maintaining a bias for action.
- To get enough detail, you need to value diversity of experience and perspective.
- And finally you need to actually create a solution, which means valuing craft and navigating the often challenging journey towards delivering something that works in the real world.
Since valuing is a dynamic process, each of these values requires active consideration and balance.
Creating a self-reinforcing climate of confidence
In our experience, as people in an organisation demonstrate these values, what you get is an emerging climate of confidence because everyone feels like they know what they are doing, people trust each other, and nobody feels like they are going to be exploited, shafted, or let down.
The magic is that this creates a positive feedback loop because a climate of confidence makes it easier to be selfless, which makes it easier to face the truth, which in turn rewards getting into detail, and so on.
So our belief is that this system of values, if you actively invest in them, eventually becomes an engine that drives the kind of culture in which effective collaboration can take place, and it’s that culture which gives you the best chance of designing and delivering the solutions to complex problems.
Assuming you find this values-based framework compelling, the next logical step is to reflect on how you value each of these ideas, and perhaps how your organisation values them. Do your values set you up to be a good collaborator? Are you well-balanced across all of them? Are you lopsided? Are you lopsided in particular situations? Do your values match those of your organisation?
These questions require a degree of honest self-reflection, but to help you along we created the Collab Quiz. Answer about 15 questions and we’ll give you some feedback to use as a starting point.
After assessing your values, the next obvious question is likely to be, “How do I change them? In myself, and in my organisation?” This is a big question with no quick answer, but here’s our starting advice.
In writing about each value, we’ve tried to make a simple case for why it is important. If you can see the point of a value, but it’s just not something you ordinarily do, start by getting more exposure.
For example, if you tend to avoid diversity, ask yourself why, identify any barriers (real or imagined), and then find opportunities to try it out. If what we are saying is true, then you’ll find the experience valuable enough to want to keep going.
If you really can’t see the point in a value, then consider whether or not it’s a barrier to your success. Maybe it’s not! Otherwise, get some exposure—it’ll be self-reinforcing.
If you want to change the values in an organisation, it’s all done through modelling. While it can be useful to write values down and promote them in an explicit way, the real influence is in day to day modelling.
This can work completely unconsciously. We were modelling our values at Liquid long before we articulated them. But you can amplify the effect by being aware of what you are doing. What values are on your mind? How can you model them? How can you highlight for others what you are doing?
For example, people at Liquid will often commentate on difficult decisions in terms of values: “I want to take control of this project but I don’t want to deprive someone else of the opportunity. What should I do?” “I really just want to make a decision and move on, but I know you want to slow down and look at this more closely.” This kind of thing exposes an otherwise hidden thought process—that act of personal valuation—and turns it into a model for others to follow.
Hiring, promotion & incentives
It’s far easier to hire and promote people who already hold pro-collaboration values than it is to change existing anti-collaborative values.
It’s not such a big issue for junior hires, who are perhaps more easily influenced by strong collaborative norms within an organisation. But if a person with anti-collaborative values becomes entrenched in a position of power, it can be very hard to find a way to change them, and meanwhile their values can ripple down and stunt collaboration throughout the organisation.
If senior leadership value collaboration, then it’s important to figure out the measures used to promote staff to greater levels of power and influence, and how to incentivise collaborative behaviour.