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Vanilla Ice had it right: STOP, Collaborate, and Listen

One of the things that I’ve realized over the last few years is that despite the fact that I’ve gained more experience, I’ve done more formal educations, taken trainings, and built a lot of personal capabilities, I seem to have trended towards more collaborative decision making. I now spend more time talking to people about decisions before I make them then I ever had previously. On some level I think that this is counterintuitive. You would think that as you gain more skill in something and you begin to understand some things better that you would probably spend less time speaking with others before you make a decision. My assumption would be that you have the expertise to make those decisions yourself but that hasn’t been the case.

What I’ve found is that as I learn more, I’ve also learned more about what I don’t know. I’ve come to value other people’s perspectives a lot more. As you get into making complex business decisions, I think you have to fight continually against your own biases. I for one thing know that I have a tendency to be extraordinarily optimistic about everything. If I don’t have other people there to balance me, I might make decisions that are based on my tendency to look at the big picture and make a decisions that maybe doesn’t take into account some of the things that might go wrong. So I need people to help balance me in that sense.

It’s amazing to me sometimes how differently someone will look at a problem just based on their past experience and I think that’s something that people really need to recognize. So much of our own decision making framework is influenced by decisions we made in the past and the results of those decisions. I think it’s important to be really careful about the lessons that you’ve learned from past decisions because you don’t really have the scope of experience to understand if you’re taking away the right things. If you, based on a set of factors, decided to invest in a project and that project turned out poorly, you might say that if presented with those facts again you won’t make the same decision. The problem with this is that the last time could have been a unique set of circumstances where things didn’t work out. It could be that in most cases those same set of circumstances would have led to a smashing success. So I guess what I’m saying is that you’ve got to be careful about the lessons that you’ve learned from the past because they’re based on very unique sets of circumstances and not always going to lead to the same destination. This is where having a strong collaboration base comes in handy.

You have a very strong tool at your disposal if you maintain a network of people that you can talk with about things and you’re able to bring in their lessons learned and their decisions making frameworks. I know that when I look at a problem or decision that I’m making I immediately begin to narrow down the field of approaches to solving that problem or addressing that decision. Again this process is based on the things that are in my personal tool kit, what my experiences have been, and the types of approaches that have been successful for me. I don’t narrow down my approaches by explicit decision, but simply because I don’t have them. So I end up leaving out a whole host of possibilities that otherwise would have been there had I spoken to people who had a broader experience. So having the opportunity to collaborate with more people has allowed me to take in a much greater set of possible approaches than I would have otherwise considered.

So all of those things have pushed me to develop this more collaborative decision making process than I previously had. Even though on the surface at least with my growing experience and expertise I should be able to make more of those decisions without outside help, I’ve actually trended more towards that collaborative process. I really do think that there are a lot of great things that come with experience, a better understanding of situations, and issues but one of the things that you can lose if you’re not careful is that broader spectrum of experience. I think that’s a real trap that senior executives need to avoid. They need to be careful on how heavily they weight their own experience because you may be closing off a world of possibilities that otherwise you’d be able to take advantage of. So I’m a big believer in reaching out to your personal network, establishing a group of trusted advisors within your circle of friends, and colleagues so that you can have somebody to bounce things off of and get access to that broader range of experience. As always I’m very interested in what other people’s experiences are in this area and what they think.

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Jessica Day

I once worked with a group that prioritized collaboration beyond all its other values. Every project was executed by a group of individuals working to problem solve together. After three years at this organization, we realized that every engagement was still taking just as long and ran into a lot of challenges as we moved forward… largely due to what you’re saying here. Every collaboration is different and every collaboration is valuable. You might get better at asking questions or listening, but every collaboration is perhaps the most rewarding challenge that you will meet and no project will ever run the risk of becoming formulaic.