I have been working with a number of clients lately who are working in partnership with other organisations to deliver service or infrastructure outcomes. Sitting in on their meetings is illuminating and I have learnt a number of things.

Firstly, there are so many smart and capable people out there doing amazingly difficult jobs with commitment and competence. It’s humbling to see. Secondly, content experts find great comfort in talking about content. Gathering and analysing data, reviewing options and making decisions are mothers milk. And that’s as it should be for people whose job it is to deliver on challenging projects.

But there is a downside to this content competence, and it poses a critical risk when collaborating on complex problems. The downside of being a deep expert can be that if something doesn’t look like data or information about the project then:

  • I may not recognise it as important;
  • I may recognise it as important and then get stuck trying to gather data about something that defies a data-based approach;
  • I may recognise it as important but ignore it in the hope it goes away.

The latter two are examples of retreating to the comfort zone of information and analysis.

An example would be when relationships and trust begin to break down on a project.

Sitting in on meetings recently with one project group I have seen the pressure mount on the team and relationships take a turn for the worse. Everyone sees it, and they definitely feel it. What is interesting is how they respond. For example, one project team says to the other “I want to know where you are getting those figures from, because they seem different to what we are getting?”. The response is often something like “we will get you the numbers…”.

The assumption seems to be that if we go back into the data and do more looking around and analysis we will find an answer that will satisfy you and we will all be happy. But of course what is really going on is an unspoken conversation about lack of trust. Team A is saying “we don’t believe your numbers and you can’t be trusted”. Team B is saying “we’ll get the data and show you so-and-so’s who can be trusted around here”.

The problem is clearly trust but the conversation is about the numbers: A classic retreat to the data. And of course, the longer the real conversation is avoided the harder it gets to have and the more damage done to relationships. The tendency to default to ‘safe’ arguments about data gets stronger, and around the vicious cycle we go.

In these situations, when at daggers drawn, what is most needed is some real listening, authentic curiosity and genuine vulnerability. We must talk to each other like people, with honesty and transparency.

These are hard conversations to have yet we all know that clearing the air and getting things on the table is a great way to bring people and teams closer together.

So, in your collaboration, are you always conversing about the data or are you building in the time for just talking, learning and sharing together? If you’d like some guidelines on how to do that feel free to download our ‘Respectful Inquiry’ tool, which offers a simple way to help go below the data.