When collaborating it pays to explore the hidden aspects of your complex project.

Have you heard of Lisa Blair? Last year she completed her second (!!) solo sailing venture around Antarctica, with the aim of raising awareness about climate change. You can learn about her amazing story here.

Watching Lisa’s journey I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to sail the Southern Ocean. It’s dangerous isn’t it? After all, it’s cold down there! Has Lisa watched Titanic? Has someone told her about icebergs?

I have a thing about icebergs. As we know, most of their bulk sits below the waterline, their shape and scale and details unknown. And while I’ve never been near one, I feel I often encounter something similar when working with groups on complex problems.

Dilemmas in your content and your context

You see, when groups work together on challenging problems or projects, the problem seems visible and known. It’s the reason people come together in the first place, to deliver a project or fix the problem they can see. Yet I have learned that the bulk of the complexity usually sits invisibly below the surface. And as we all know, it’s the bit of the iceberg below the waterline that sinks the ship.

For example, on a big highway upgrade project I’ve been involved in, the visible problem is how to build the road. But poke around a little bit and it becomes clear that there is more going on. Watching the teams at work I can see that lying just under the surface are questions about lack of trust, competition, cultural differences, the need to be right and a reluctance to be seen to be wrong, to name a few. Each of these sharp angles can rip a hole in any collaboration.

Note that this is no criticism of the project teams. These types of human and relational issues are always present whenever people get together around a challenging project. My roading folks actually had the awareness to seek help to surface and deal with it. They recognised that their ‘content’ question – how do we build the road – exists in a context of social dilemmas that we might summarise as how do we work together in order to build the road?

Successful collaborators recognise both the content and the context, the visible and invisible elements of their project problem.  By acknowledging the context elements and finding ways to work on them as they work on the content, great collaborators are able to make progress where other groups might founder.

Are you tackling your context as you work on your content? I will be discussing ways you can do this important work at our first collaboration workshop of the year. Register .