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Collaboration as the New Normal

by Milenko Matanovič

March 30, 2016

When it comes to community, together we always know more.

Whenever I make this statement, I get serious push-back:  artists know more about design, engineers must handle all calculations and so on and so on.

Experts indeed know more about specifics. I am truly glad that specialists calculate how bridges and skyscrapers stand tall. I am grateful that great artists do not consult with focus groups. I am glad that heart surgeons install stents into arteries without needing to get permission from a committee. When it comes to dealing with specifics, specialists do know best and we are all glad for their knowledge and expertise.

When it comes to community, however, people with broad perspectives and open minds do better. They understand that a community is not a mere collection of different parts, but a complex ecosystem that intertwines nature and humans who belong to diverse practices, opinions, professions, ideologies, and cultures. Such individuals know that we cannot solve the problem of the whole, of the system, with the expertise of the particular.

Yet, in our democratic practices we regularly act as if a singular know-how will solve all of our problems. From presidential debates to small community meetings, this modality is the current norm. When presidential candidates proclaim their superiority because of specific expertise in business or medicine, or because of their unconditional adherence to a particular ideology, red flags come up for me. “Sorry,” I say to myself, “you just lost my vote because you assume that one particular expertise or mindset can still solve the multi-dimensional and interconnected problems our world is facing.”

On the local level, community meetings are still typically dominated by participants with fixed talking points who argue vigorously for their point of view while ignoring those of others.   Unfortunately, this stops any learning in its tracks. On a larger scale, this contradicts the entire ideology that democracy is about jointly discovering the optimal path forward.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow astutely pointed out that “if you only have a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.” In other words, we all project our specific expertise upon the larger system which gives us a sense of authority and power. This is just human nature at work – we all like to appear strong and knowledgeable. However, this default mode is not adequate any longer. A whole toolkit, or new set of habits is needed.

Music is my favorite analogy for this dynamic. We need to practice new dance steps because the music has changed to jazz where interaction, listening, adjusting and discovering together is required as we, simultaneously, play our part. In jazz making great music together requires individual excellence as part of a greater whole. It is not about muting individuality. It is about placing it within a common context where others have equal say about what is happening.

My friend Bela Fleck agreed in our interview a few years back. He said, “(in jazz) the bottom line is that you must be willing to let others shine. When my attitude is simply that I want to play great, this is not as good as when I want everyone to be great.”

The good news: every day we have opportunities to practice our own version of collaborative jazz at work and home. In time, when we take this practice seriously, we will become virtuosos for whom collaboration becomes second nature. When our collaborative muscle memory develops, we will demand it from our leaders. And, soon, collaboration will become the norm. It is up to all of us to make it happen.