look for disconfirming data

Adam Kahane hosted a webcast this week to discuss his new book, Collaborating with the Enemy. I thought his first book, Solving Tough Problems, was an excellent read so I attended. What follows are from my notes. The quotes are as I wrote them down and may not be Kahane’s exact words.

Kahane opened the session with an observation from his research that “collaboration is often difficult and painful and doesn’t work”. He described collaboration as the fourth option, usually after these three are discarded: adapt, exit, and force. It is often when forcing our position is not possible that we realize we must collaborate. Kahane cited the case of our relationship with the United States, in that Canada has no choice but to collaborate with the USA. Canada cannot exit North America, adapt its borders, or force its way with our larger neighbour.

Kahane stated that the conventional model of collaboration implicitly means control, it is constricted, and cannot succeed in complex situations when both parties do not want to collaborate. The book describes a process Kahane calls ‘stretch collaboration’. It is an open process and often makes participants feel uncomfortable as they lack control over what will transpire. Stretch collaboration is based on three fundamental assumptions:

  1. We are not one team or whole, and we have a multiplicity of interests. We have to embrace conflict as well as connection.
  2. We are probably not going to agree on either the problem or the solution, so the only way to find out is to try one step at a time, and to experiment.
  3. The only thing you can change is yourself.

The objective is to make collaboration less daunting by not requiring consensus and focusing on small concrete steps. Human (including organizational and national) relationships are by their nature complex, so this approach of small experiments (probes) aligns with the Cynefin framework of Probe > Sense > Respond for the complex domain.

Kahane mentioned a guiding question in his research and work on conflict resolution (he was involved in South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission). He asks himself: “What can I do differently?”  I liken this to my own guiding principle of perpetual Beta: constant change while still getting things done. Kahane closed by noting that “almost everything I’ve learned is through the disciplined examination of my experience” as well as an approach of “looking for disconfirming data, as Charles Darwin did”. I look forward to reading the book soon and will write a more complete review.

“I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones.” —Charles Darwin

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