The Collaboration Paradox

John Abele

One of the people I’ve had the good fortune to get to know is John Abele. John is the retired Founding Chairman of Boston Scientific Corporation, Chair of the FIRST Foundation (a very interesting and successful program to engage young people in engineering, science, technology, and project management through the vehicle of robotics challenges) and the owner of The Kingbridge Centre and Institute, a conferencing institution whose mission is to research, develop, and teach improved methods for interactive conferencing: problem solving, conflict resolution, strategic planning, new methods for learning and generally help groups to become “Collectively intelligent.”

John holds numerous patents and has published and lectured extensively on the technology of various medical devices and on the technical, social, economic, and political trends and issues affecting healthcare. His major interests are science literacy for children, education, and the process by which new technology is invented, developed, and introduced to society.

Over the years one of John’s passions is understanding the nature of collaboration and how to foster it in various realms of human activity. Recently, John was interviewed by Saj-Nicole Joni for Forbes. The article, “The Crucial Quest for Collaborative Leadership: A Conversation With John Abele of Boston Scientific” was published May 7th, 2012.

There are a number of themes in the interview, such as the definition and nature of “collaboration” itself:

Saj-Nicole Joni: Wherever you look, Arab Springs are occurring—in emerging countries, in the Occupy movement, in health care, in business, in education. These democratizing movements are all powered by the Internet and mobile devices, which make connectivity and sharing instant. But begin connected is only the starting point. People everywhere must learn the deeper human skills of collaboration if we are to harness the amazing power of networks for greater good, in business, government, the professions, the arts.

John Abele:  Agreed. And the first thing we need to recognize is that we have a lot to learn. Collaboration is a simple word, but it has many forms and is widely misunderstood and misused. What are you trying to accomplish? Command and control is important for defined tasks (you don’t want creative employees in a nuclear plant). Facilitated, self-organizing, adversarial, or even crowd-source collaborations may be appropriate for other goals. In every situation setting the stage makes the difference for harnessing collective intelligence versus just another meeting.

Saj-Nicole Joni: The biggest challenge in getting collaboration right is to achieve a ying-yang balance in several dimensions.  What are the three most important areas of balance that collaboration leaders need to guide?

John Abele:  Each balance factor is a paradox. You need to cede control in order to gain it. Socratic dialogue, asking great questions, can help establish a culture that does this. Second, you must be humble and confident at the same time, and you must make this the cultural norm of the collaboration. Third, you must be willing to not take all the credit, and yet be recognized for and respected for what you contribute. And you have to ensure that this kind of balance regarding the attribution of contribution pervades the entire collaboration, for everyone involved.

Think about the collaborations you are currently involved in, and ask yourself how balanced they are in terms of control, humility, and attribution. If you don’t like what you see, then there are the places to dig in.

You can see the full interview here:

On the Kingbridge site ( John has also posted a white paper (“The Collaboration Paradox”) that further elaborates on his thoughts about collaboration.

From the time we start school and throughout our careers, we are taught and rewarded for the very traits that make it difficult for us to collaborate effectively. This situation is compounded by the way we teach leaders to rigorously assert control as often as possible so their authority is constantly being reinforced. Controlling people is the opposite of collaborating with them. As a result, most leaders of collaborations are doing exactly the wrong things when they bring people together to collaborate, and the other people involved in those projects are essentially programmed to derail or resist collaboration. After describing that, the central paradox of collaboration, I’ll analyzing several intriguing projects that have achieved the highest level of collaboration– the “Holy Grail” that many organizations strive for because of the phenomenal results that can be achieved.

At this crucial juncture in history, where the world economy is seeking to rebuild itself, efficiency is more crucial than ever. Getting maximum value out of collaborations will help rebuild our economies more quickly. In addition, many of the most exciting new fields require collaboration on multiple levels and across several areas of expertise: These fields include nanotechnology, bioengineering, and alternative fuel development.

Too often, creative collaborations become a sham. With so many parts, players, and egos involved, simply managing the political aspects of such projects is challenging enough, let alone integrating the results into anything actionable. In the end, the organizers may make glowing reference to the long list of divas they assembled, but often they have little to show for that effort and almost certainly nothing really new has come from it.

What’s most surprising about this lack of success is that we have an ever-expanding array of tools that can enhance collaboration, such as Wikis, search engines, smart phones, and social networks.

You can read the complete paper here:

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