The Complexity of Collaboration

Working in a complex environment, and trying to solve a complex problem can get really stuck. We often get lost within the very environment, or landscape, created by the dynamics of the problem we seek to solve.

Using the traditional management tools might not be enough to help you this time and might only dig you in deeper, because there is a feedback dynamic at play in complex systems, which will only make the problem worse.

To counter these dynamics, sometimes collaboration is a preferred way out. As a practice of connecting and sharing it can create new paths forward. Collaboration is the art of creating value, of understanding there are no zero sum games when growth is needed. Collaboration is a form of participation in creating the emergence of a new order out of local interactions.

But collaboration is a complex effort, it includes multiple parties all interacting with each other at the same time. Collaboration creates a platform, its a way of working which can be the basis for emerging new things. By now we are very much in an age of collaboration. The new ‘shared’ economy or ‘access’ economy of Airbnb, Uber and their likes is based on a collaboration of many separated individuals creating a network of huge value for the collaborating parties and further beyond.

How can we make the collaboration project result in a magnificent structure like the termite mound (above) and not crumble down like the tower of Babel?

The Tower of Babel (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563)

I believe there are two core principles that we must apply when establishing collaboration as a tool to counter complex systemic problems.

One, is to create a common language, or core values for the collaborating network. The other is focusing on the local interactions and not the overall result.

Creating a common value in a collaboration effort does not mean eliminating or reducing diversity. It must mean keeping clarity of the shared ground rules.

A good example for such values miscommunication, where actual numeric values were miss communicated is the case of NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO).

Mars Climate Orbiter

The Mars Climate Orbiter was launched on December 11, 1998 with an expectation to enter Mars’s atmosphere on September 23rd, 1999. However the USD 328 Million worth space craft was lost while trying to enter its orbit over the red planet. An investigation quickly found that the collaboration of different teams on the mission has been the basis for the mission’s failure – “one team used English units (e.g., inches, feet and pounds) while the other used metric units for a key spacecraft operation”. NASA was quick to acknowledge the failure of the collaboration by admitting that “”People sometimes make errors,” said Dr. Edward Weiler, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Science. “The problem here was not the error, it was the failure of NASA’s systems engineering, and the checks and balances in our processes to detect the error. That’s why we lost the spacecraft.””. Here’s one example of a modern tower of Babel.

This is what happens when the collaboration efforts are goal driven and less locally focused. A great example of how a collaboration effort has been driven by focusing on the local connections is a story from the early days of Airbnb. Airbnb started by a couple of guys renting their own living room space to conferences guests in San Francisco. Three years into the start up, while that same apartment served as the company’s offices, one of its founders – Brian Chesky, left this apartment for a fantastic business and public relations project. He was going to use Airbnb’s services for his own accommodation. He ended up spending almost a year living in other people’s living rooms.

This emphasis on the local connections of the collaboration rather then on any long term vision or goal was what made Airbnb grow as fast as they did and become the world largest bed provider, disrupting the traditional hospitality industry.

Google Finance, Company websites, Brady Capital Research , Sep. 15

To conclude, it can be up to us to design and lead our collaboration projects in the right or wrong path. We can make them become an Airbnb or a NASA Mars orbiter. Focusing on shared values and on locally driven interactions, would be the best steps to take while doing so.

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To know more about the CompleXto-Change approach visit my website at





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