How to Make Collaboration Work

Leadership | Collaboration

“Collaboration is a nice idea, but ________.” Fill in the blank.

You’ve probably heard this phrase many times. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. In my 30+ years as a business leader, consultant, and executive coach, I’ve heard sentences like: Collaboration is a nice idea, but…

  • “…we have deadlines. Too much talk. Not enough action.”
  • “…we’ve tried this; it’s just not practical.”
  • “…you can NEVER get everyone to agree.”
  • “…consensus doesn’t work most of the time.”

Based on their workplace experiences, these comments reflect many leaders’ beliefs about the practice of collaboration. (In some international cultures, adding stigma to the word, collaboration implies consorting with the enemy.) With those acknowledgements, I assert the contrary, collaboration can and does work to make things work better for the greatest number of people, stakeholders, and all living things!

For leaders everywhere, in business, education, health care and government, we are facing unprecedented challenges, that include among other things, diversity of thought and a politicization of almost every conceivable issue. Often, people do not even know how to engage with each other in productive ways and conversations that should happen, do not. People do not generally have a personal or systemic approach to building a collaborative culture.

We are at historical levels of turmoil in the job market with more people leaving their jobs in the past few months (a record 4.4 million or 3% of the workforce in September.) In what is now being called ‘the age of resignation,’ intelligent collaboration – engaging the right people, at the right time, in effective ways – is an essential capacity for inclusive workplace cultures and, in a broader context, for the success of conscious capitalism and participatory democracy.

In his book, How to Make Collaboration Work, David Straus states that building a collaborative culture—a remedy for much of what ails us-- requires two essential ingredients:

  1. Inclusive values that leaders hold and demonstrate, for example: human dignity and interdependence, and
  2. A collaborative tool kit, that includes 10+ of the most practical tools and techniques for helping people work better together.

David Straus was a pioneer in the field of collaborative problem-solving and one my mentors.

In this foundational book, David writes:

“The place to begin working collaboratively is in your heart. When you hold only two powerful ideas: 1. every human being has the right to be involved in decisions that affect their life, and 2. with good process, people generate more creative and comprehensive solutions together than they can by themselves.

Mastery of the tools and techniques essential for successful collaboration will follow from holding those ideas. With practice, you can make collaboration work for you.”

While this prescription sounds simple, it requires an intention practice, along with the mind and heart-sets to lead the way on your team and your organization. This book, a classic in my opinion, offers a distillation of insights, principles, and practical skills for us all.

How to Make Collaboration Work: Power Ways to Build Consensus, Solve Problems, and Make Decisions by David Straus

The IA workshop, Facilitative Leadership, focuses on Seven Practices that empower people to work together to achieve a common goal. Over 300,000 leaders around the world apply the practices from this workshop to tap into the power of your most important and valuable element of all: your people. In this power-packed program, you learn the foundational skills required for intelligent collaboration. Learn more about our flagship program, Facilitative Leadership.



About Linda Dunkel

Linda Dunkel is a former President and Chairperson of Interaction Associates. Now a principal at the Dallas-based firm DNA Consulting ( , Linda helps executives apply collaborative approaches to drive performance improvement and culture transformation initiatives.