collaborating with the enemy

Collaborating with the Enemy by Adam Kahane gives a framework of how to work with people you don’t agree with, like, or trust. Kahane developed it through his years of conducting collaboration workshops such as the Mont Fleur sessions to prepare for a post-apartheid South Africa. I read his first book in 2005, Solving Tough Problems, and his latest is similar in that it is short, to the point, and provides practical advice. It is based on some of the failures in his work and professional relationships from which he developed a guiding principle to always “look for disconfirming evidence”.

His framework is relatively simple to understand.

When two or more parties get together to address a problematic situation, they ask themselves a series of questions to understand their options. First they determine if they can change the situation. If so, can they effect change unilaterally, in which case they can force their solution. This happens frequently when governments ‘consult’ people who have no power to effect change.

If they cannot change the situation, then they have two unilateral decisions possible: adapt to what has been forced on them, or exit the situation if possible.

If they can change the situation but cannot effect change unilaterally, then it is possible that conventional collaboration can work, but only if the change can be controlled. This is the basis of a lot of collaboration interventions based on an assumption of control, which is often wrong. This is what Kahane learned through his failures. Even if the engaging parties agree to collaborate, other factors and external parties may subvert their actions.

In the case where the situation is complex and cannot be controlled (which is pretty well most human problem situations) Kahane recommends ‘stretch collaboration‘.

“The first stretch is to embrace conflicts and connection.”

“In conventional collaboration, we focus on working harmoniously with our team members to achieve what is best for the whole team. We talk rather than fight. This approach works when we are in simple situations that are under control: when all our perspectives and interests are, or can be made to be, congruent. But when we are in complex, uncontrolled situations where our perspectives and interests are at odds, we need to search out and work with our conflicts as well as our connections. We need to fight as well as talk.”

The essence of the first stretch is to balance love and power, such as between engaging and asserting, or between capitulating and resisting.

“The second stretch is to experiment a way forward.”

“In conventional collaboration, we move forward by agreeing on the problem, the solution, and the plan to implement the solution, and then executing this plan. This approach works when we are in simple situations that are under control: when we can get agreement among our collaborators and also get a plan to produce the results we intend. But when we are are in complex, uncontrolled situations, we need to experiment with different possible articulations and actions we need to take a step forward, observe what happens, and then take another step.”

The essence of the second stretch is to use different types of listening and speaking, such as presenting our views as universal truths, as opposed to sharing our feelings and observations.

“The third stretch is to step into the game.”

“In conventional collaboration, we focus on trying to change what other people are doing. These others may be people outside our collaboration who are the targets of our collective activities, or they may be fellow collaborators whose behaviour we think ought to change. This approach works when we are in simple situations that are under control: when we can change what other people are doing. But when we are in complex, uncontrolled situations, we need to shift our focus onto what we ourselves are doing: how we are contributing to things being the way they are and what we need to do differently to change the way things are.”

The essence of the third stretch is to move from the role of director or bystander to one of an involved co-creator, so that we become part of the problem, and therefore part of the solution.

Kahane’s approach aligns with the Cynefin framework that advocates a probe, sense, respond approach to complex situations. Whenever people are involved, it’s most likely that all problematic situations will be complex. If you are dealing with these types of problems, then this book is a must-read.

probe complexity

2 thoughts on “collaborating with the enemy”

Leave a comment


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.