The Virtues of Government Service – Number 4: Collaboration

Eureka!  Collaboration is Cool (and very effective).

In his new book, the highly decorated and widely admired Police Chief (NYC and LA) William Bratton, sounding like Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman) in the movie of the same title, says of police violence on innocents, “What we have here is a failure to collaborate.” His book, Collaborate or Perish, details a dozen stories where a failure to collaborate had devastating consequences.  What can we learn from these stories that apply to the myriad challenges we face today?

Sometimes our problems seem overwhelming. Yet the opportunities to harness people’s creativity, passion and desire to make an impact, have never been greater or more achievable. The potential to make a dent in as-yet unsolved economic, social and other issues exists – if we can only grasp it. Leadership qualities, not simply technology, are the essential ingredients. Leadership at every level must seek and support collaboration. Why? Because collaboration is vital to innovation. And innovation is the process by which we improve the world.

Author and speaker Steven Johnson, in his YouTube talk (oh, by the way, he has over 1.5 million YouTube followers) entitled, “Where Great Ideas Come From” has studied numerous famous and interesting, problem-solving advances in modern history.  He convincingly debunks the “great man myth” –  a theory that’s been promulgated for way too long. The great man myth is the idea that breakthrough ideas came from individuals (usually men) who, while sitting in a bathtub or on a mountaintop, had a “Eureka” moment and thus moved the world. That makes for a nice story but it’s not much grounded in reality.

Johnson writes:“The history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time. Eureka moments are very, very rare.”

How Progress Really Happens

So, where do good and great ideas come from? If they’re not with a sudden flash of genius, how does progress really happen? Collaboration is key. Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian,“What all this means, in practical terms, is that the best way to encourage new ideas and create the ‘spark of genius,’ is not to retreat to a mountain cabin in order to ‘be creative,’ or to blabber interminably about ‘blue-sky,’ ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking. Rather, it’s to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine. This is one way of explaining the creativity generated by cities, by Europe’s 17th-century coffee-houses, and by the Internet.” Or as Johnson puts it: “Chance favors the connected mind.”  So, how does one develop a “connected mind”? Collaborate!

 The US Government is On Board

With the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 2010, the US government formally recognized that collaboration is key to progress. With GPRA, the Performance Improvement Council (PIC), a government-wide body that supports cross-agency collaboration and best practice sharing, was established under Executive Order 13450 in 2007 and codified in law. For more information, please see The council creates opportunities for government employees to learn from breakthroughs achieved elsewhere and helps solve complex challenges through collaboration.

 The Collaborative You

Enhancing and exercising your ability to collaborate, as an individual or as an organization, isn’t a cakewalk. But, it is a good personal and business decision. Knowing that collaboration spawns the big ideas that will meaningfully address customer needs, taking the insight from idea through implementation is key. Next, leaders must collaborate and explore ways to deliver the short and long-term benefits for the organization and its stakeholders. Amy J. Radin, author of The Change Maker’s Playbook: How to Seek, Seed and Scale Innovation in Any Company, is a nationally recognized Fortune 100 Chief Marketing and Information Officer. She describes three phases – Seeking, Seeding and Scaling – to organize the collaborative-change framework. This provides an intuitive, logical and usable format, with concrete actions outlined every step of the way.

The Collaborative Leader

Be a force for positive change. According to countless surveys, “Washington D.C.” is the prime example of what happens when people don’t work together. Instead of pooling their talents for a common goal and the common good, Congress is mired in gridlock, recrimination and petty squabbles. The result? Things may eventually get done. It’s just incredibly more difficult and time-consuming. Igniting and nurturing a collaborative effort is a true test of leadership and workplace culture. Collaboration depends on you bringing your best self to the effort every day in every way. In my experience, when people are true to themselves, amazing things happen.

Few experiences are more rewarding than being part of a successful collaboration. Being part of creating something larger than our individual selves touches our souls, connects us to people and brings a bone-deep sense of career satisfaction and strong workplace culture. You can do it, you can be it, you can have it.

 Commit to Collaboration

What can you do to get started?  Here are a couple ideas.

  1. Whether you’re a leader in fact or in waiting, do what you can to create and promote a collaborative environment.
  2. Think of new ways to keep in touch with stakeholders and customers – internal and external.
  3. Think of yourself as a satisfied or dissatisfied customer. How can an experiment with collaboration improve the situation(s) – even with your satisfied customers?

In summary, a good mindset towards collaboration plants many seeds and nurtures that harvest over time for a substantial return on investment. There’s probably no better “bet” on the future than a positive attitude and a “bias towards action” with collaboration at the heart of your strategy. The sum truly is greater than the sum of its parts, as Aristotle might say.

 Rick Pfautz is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Sherie Sanders

Nice post! Witty but informative. Love how you set the scene for that fictional “eureka” moment. Important topic, I must confess, my biggest frustration with past employment was failure to achieve synergy with some of my colleagues and supervisors. Will have to read those books, and hopefully find a culture that values same!