Collaboration, the art of alliance, and recognizing strengths in others

teamworkRecently, some educators I work with asked me what I thought the most important skill children can learn is. The question came to me in the context of technology, as I am responsible for technology operations and integration at a private school in the city of Chicago. I try to answer these questions as best I can and in the context they are asked. This is a huge question, one that transcends technology, and my off-the-cuff inclination, which was to say simply, “collaboration,” was not nearly going to cover it. My answer involves much more than that.

Perhaps it would be useful to provide some back story regarding why I do not default to a pro-technology answer in these situations, as is often the expected result from the folks who ask them:

From my perspective, technology just as easily gets in the way as often as it provides solutions. I realize this is not the type of outlook most “tech people” have but I can safely say I am not a bona fide “tech guy” for a couple of reasons. First, I was not formally trained in technical sciences in the traditional sense. I was instead self-taught through experience in various fields and my own tinkering. I learned most about systems and theory by trial and error in tandem with the good fortune to be mentored by some very smart and talented people who were not all technically fluent (though some very much so). Second, I am fortunate to have worked in multiple disciplines and sectors in unique technical capacities, in heavy adaptive, integrative, and creative contexts.

Being steeped in interdisciplinary use of these tools shaped and now informs my perspective in a refreshing way, specifically where and when tools are assets and/or obstacles to a culture, both in the short and long view. In other words, I have seen, and continue to see, the same patterns over and over again. These patterns do not always move as solutions where and when technology is involved, but you don’t have to take my word for it. We get in the way with our cultural choices more than we think.

Therefore, my default starting point is typically from a place of questioning revolving around existing tools. Are they working? Where? Are they failing? Where? Are they capable of more? Could they be modified in a way that would empower the culture to solve their challenges out-of-the-chute? If not, what additional level of complexity (the addition of tools, perhaps technology) can be leveraged to provide a solution that produces enough improvement to warrant a shift (displacement, really) of the working culture?

In other words, technology is the easy part. Designing, architecting, and implementing these tools is rather trivial when compared to integrating them into a culture. That is the real challenge and knowing when and where disruption of a culture is necessary in order to move it forward and where to allow it to grow without such invasive intervention is a tough call, requiring multiple perspectives in order to formulate the clearest picture of what the advantages and disadvantages will be, across contexts and disciplines.

What we are talking about is problem-solving here, in its simplest and also most complex forms. It is a process, but one that is less about technology and more about people. The most critical skill in designing and creating these solutions, and enabling the people we designed them for to be able to use them most effectively, is recognizing strengths in others. Bending the tools to the culture, rather than the other way around. Design is being present and mindful of the user.

For example, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant a change we make to a workflow is, we can always expect a certain level of push back from the culture within which it resides. Leveraging the strengths of the team is the key ingredient to success in any case. Empowering others to do their very best work, making them feel more comfortable being themselves, is non-negotiable in regards to radical changes (and, let’s face it, any change will be perceived to be radical) to any culture.

Through illustrating this, demonstrating this for our children, we can rest assured that we have done and are doing everything we can to instill in them this idea. By helping others succeed, we, too will succeed. In the end, perhaps, is this more a conversation about building community than integrating technology or teaching a specific skill set? Seems like the best teams do this without thinking about it – the goal is clear and when we are playing at it in earnest, the machine fires on all 16-cylinders and next thing we know we have accomplished more together as a whole than the sum of each our individual parts.

So, this has been a long way of answering the question. To put it simply, I suppose I could have just said:

some of the most important skills we may be able to teach our children are related to the art of alliance and how to recognize strengths in others. From a leadership standpoint, this is about finding a solutions-oriented approach to challenges that include everyone in the group. Such an approach gives the group, and each of its members, a sense of purpose. Purpose builds a sense of belonging and ownership in the work and thereby empowers everyone to do their very best work, regardless of the context.

Perhaps it is no wonder, then, why there are so many TED Talks across contexts regarding collaboration. Some great inspiration there.