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🚀 How to Stop Competing and Truly Start Collaborating (Issue #436)

🚀 How to Stop Competing and Truly Start Collaborating (Issue #436)

What it should mean to be on the same team
Women collaborating side by side
Photo by Surface on Unsplash

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He frowned and said, "That's a stupid idea. It will never work." 

"How do you know? We haven't even tested it yet!" 

He leaned back in his chair with a slightly smug look on his face. "I've been working on this product for five years. We've tested hundreds of concepts, and we tested something like this a couple of years ago. It failed."

She was frustrated. "This isn't the same, and timing matters. It tested well in the lab, so I want to get more data from an A/B test." 

He shook his head. "I disagree. That's a waste of resources." 

"Well," she said. "Looks like we're at an impasse. I guess it's time to escalate this."

I lost count of how many meetings I attended like this when I worked in tech. You know, the ones that were supposed to be "collaboration sessions" but turned into debates?

We seem to have lost our way with team meetings. Too many arguments. Too many show-offs trying to prove how smart they are. Too many people trying to "win" instead of actually working together to reach a great outcome.

Unfortunately, this type of exchange isn't uncommon in the working world. Even when we say we're going to collaborate, brainstorm, and discuss an issue in a meeting, it's actually not very collaborative. Everyone has an opinion, emotions run high, and people get stuck on their pet theories. It becomes a debate to see who can persuade the other that they are right — or force them to back down through intimidation tactics. 

It's probably true in every profession and industry, but boy oh boy, do we ever love to argue in Silicon Valley! Almost every meeting felt like a debate with one or two literal geniuses in the room (just to make sure you felt like an inferior little monkey). So many of us love to argue, demonstrate how smart we are, and crush our competitors in debates. 

I'm not saying I was above it all. I competed in debate and persuasive speaking when I was younger. As my wife will tell you, I kind of enjoy arguing. I don't take it personally. It's strangely fun for me. 

However, as much as some of us might enjoy these confrontational discussions, it's not the most effective way for teams to work together toward a common goal. When everyone is trying to win, the team often loses

Even in the healthiest of collaborative sessions, the full cognitive horsepower isn't fully aligned to drive the process forward in the same direction at the same time. 

  • One person proposes a creative idea.

  • Another person starts shooting it down. 

  • Someone else tries to share useful data they think might help the discussion. 

  • Yet another person says the idea doesn't "feel right."

  • And, someone else in the room is already at the whiteboard trying to share a completely different idea. 

What if everyone's thinking process was aligned so the team was rowing in the same direction at the same time? What if people stopped viewing each other as opponents and competitors sitting across the debate table? What if we joined each other side by side and felt like partners working together on an issue? 

Not us vs. them. Instead, it becomes us vs. the problem

With parallel thinking, you don't stop and debate every point as it is made (unlike traditional meetings). It reminds me a bit of writing. It's a slow, laborious process when people try to write and edit at the same time. They barely get any work done. But, if you separate the two activities, you can get into a creative flow state. Write and let the ideas stream onto the screen with no judgment, no editing, no stopping to fix misspellings or grammatical mistakes. Then, once your writing session is finished, return to the document later to edit and revise it. 

Imagine working together to be creative at the same time, positive at the same time, and look for issues at the same time. No more competing across the table for things you want vs what they want.

I worked in traditional 9-5 hourly jobs with the usual bosses and coworkers for about 10 years before I entered graduate school (and everything changed). For the most part, these jobs were not high-stress jobs, although there were some tense moments as a police dispatcher.

Most of the folks I worked with treated a job as a job, not a career. People worked just hard enough. I even had veteran employees tell me to, “Slow down and take it easy. You still get paid the same. Don't make anyone else look bad.”

There wasn't much competition at all, and promotions were kind of rare. In my experience, you got promoted simply by sticking around long enough. Staff turnover was incredibly frequent. I became "Delta 47” when I stayed long enough to become the shift supervisor. We were all friends and working in the trenches together.

The salaried corporate world was so very different. When I joined that experience about 30 years ago, I discovered it was much more competitive.

  • So many arguments about who was right or wrong.

  • Trying to persuade others to your point of view.

  • People deliberately withholding information as a power play.

It seems like the spirit of true collaboration was missing. It was more like coopetition. We cooperated enough to get work done, but no one could forget the underlying competition for:

  • Resources

  • Power

  • Visibility

  • Credit

  • Bonuses

  • Raises

  • Promotions

The higher purpose of what we were doing was lost, too. If individuals, teams, and organizations are all competing on some level and to some degree, what an unfortunate loss of energy and focus that is. Energy that could be aligned to do amazing things for customers and humanity.

I'm going to use two different metaphors to describe what the true spirit of collaboration might look like for your teams and companies (i.e., tables and hats). This is inspired by two sources that have stuck in my mind ever since I encountered them:

  1. Sitting on the Same Side of The Table: The Art of Collaborative Selling by Michael Levin.

  2. Six Thinking Hats by Dr. Edward de Bono (my affiliate link).

I’m going to start with the “table concept” because it’s a simple mindset shift and approach. I should say simple to understand, but not always simple to do, of course.

1. Sit on the same side of the table

I think I first heard the phrase "Sit on the same side of the table" many years ago from Jason Calacanis, an angel investor. Since then, I've learned that there's a great book on sales written by Michael Levin called Sitting on the Same Side of The Table: The Art of Collaborative Selling. The idea is to shift from a hardcore negotiation style (i.e., facing each other across the table) to sitting side-by-side with your customer while you work out solutions that are good for both of you.

The current world of Zoom meetings forces us into meetings where it appears as if we are across from one another. But, think back to the last meetings you had in a physical room. If it was a confrontational meeting and you expected some debate and argument, you probably sat in chairs across the table from the folks on the other side of the issue. I know that most of my tense meetings were like that. We certainly didn't sit next to each other.

However, I remember deliberately experimenting with this seating arrangement in one critical meeting with the head of product from another organization. There had been some tension between our teams, and disagreement about the direction our products were going and how they interacted.

I wanted the meeting to be a collaborative session instead of combative. So, when I entered the conference room, I sat next to them on the side of the table by the whiteboard. It was funny. They pulled back a little and looked at me with surprise. But I said, "I want to sketch some concepts on the whiteboard and show you a prototype on my laptop."

I was completely transparent about the goals. I wanted the solution to be something we agreed upon and would end up being a win for both of us — with the ultimate win being for the company if it worked for both of our products. The session was pretty amazing, and it changed the nature of our relationship from that day forward.

No, we didn't become best friends. But I like to think there was mutual respect, and they actually went out of their way to meet with me many months later and share some helpful advice.

There is incredible power in solving a problem together vs. being opponents facing each other on opposing sides of the table. Literally, in person. Figuratively, online.

2. Wear the “same hat”

I learned about this collaboration and decision-making model in Dr. Edward de Bono's book. Thank you for introducing me to this book, Justin!

"The main difficulty of thinking is confusion. We try to do too much at once. Emotions, information, logic, hope, and creativity all crowd in on us. It is like juggling with too many balls."
- Edward de Bono

It’s all about being in the same thinking mode at the same time vs. the typical opposing mindset of disagreement and argument. You all are creative at the same time. You all look for flaws at the same time. Stay in that mode together until it's time to switch.

  • White hat: neutral and objective, concerned with facts and figures.

  • Red hat: the emotional view.

  • Black hat: careful and cautious, the "devil's advocate" hat.

  • Yellow hat: sunny and positive.

  • Green hat: associated with fertile growth, creativity, and new ideas.

  • Blue hat: cool, the color of the sky, above everything else - the organizing hat.

Now, some people love this concept, and some are not fans. If everyone isn't fully on board with the process, it won't work. If psychological safety is absent in the organization, it won't work.

"Team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that it's OK to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes - all without fear of negative consequences." (source)

The power of the "Thinking Hats" approach is to make sure everyone is collaborating on a problem in the same mode at the same time. Instead of arguing, debating, and defending your ideas or point of view against your colleagues, you talk about the problem in a collaborative way as you view it from the same perspective at the same time.

Imagine viewing a large, complex building from the outside. If each person is on a different side of the building, what you think you’re seeing and how you would describe it is very different from everyone else. But, if you all come together and visit each side of the house at the same time, you now have a shared perspective and can have a great conversation about what it is.

This is referred to as “parallel thinking” in the book. It’s constructive collaborative thinking vs. adversarial thinking. It’s sharing everything together in the most open and honest way possible to ensure everyone has all of the information required to produce the best possible outcome.

You don’t withhold information that could help simply because you’re “trying to win” and don’t want to share relevant data that might help your opponent. Parallel thinking aligns the team fully with one thinking approach at the same time, viewing the problem from the same perspective simultaneously.

You are not opponents. It is not you vs. them. It is all of you vs. the problem. The colored hats are quick cues to move into a specific mode of thinking, communicating, and sharing. De Bono makes the point that the language we usually use to talk about emotions, negative consequences, creativity, etc. is insufficient and has some baggage (e.g., people are reluctant to fully share their personal feelings about an issue with their boss).

The hats make the exercise more objective and not about the individual. For example, you’re not being negative. You’re simply sharing Black Hat thinking and objectively pointing out things that might go wrong with a proposed course of action.

I’ll briefly summarize each of the hats. But, this barely covers what is available in his book.

Blue hat mode

Usually, the group assigns one person to act as the "blue hat." They play the role of facilitator/moderator:

  • They set the stage for the discussion (e.g., state the purpose of the meeting, identify the issue or problem, describe the desired outcome for the session).

  • They share the proposed agenda with the sequence of using some or all of the hats as they work on an issue (e.g., “Let’s start with some red hat to get everyone’s feelings on the issue. Then, we’ll move into white hat and share all of the data and information we have. After that, I’d like to move into green hat and start generating some new ideas for how we might solve the problems.”).

  • They will remind participants to stay in a specific mode of thinking (e.g., “Tom, that’s black hat thinking and we’re still in the yellow hat part of the discussion. Save that for later, ok?”).

  • At the end, the blue hat asks for the outcome and talks about next steps (e.g., “So, we all agreed that this is the best course of action. Next steps, lets loop in the rest of the team to start planning the work on this new strategy.”).

White hat mode

In white hat mode, you share the information and data you have with your colleagues, but without any emotional interpretation or bias. What is actually happening? Not what you imagine is happening. Not how you feel about it.

Everyone puts all the facts on the table together, while striving to be neutral and objective. Unlike most meetings, everyone should share every bit of information and data they are aware of, even if it doesn’t support their personal agenda.

  • No emotional reactions.

  • No arguing about the data.

  • No debating a piece of information.

  • No judgment of the facts.

  • Think "Mr. Spock."

Red hat mode

In typical business discussions, you’re not supposed to allow your emotions to cloud your judgment. You try to avoid becoming heated during a debate. The first person to lose their cool loses the argument, right?

Well, believe me, emotions do run high in business meetings. But, it’s often not a shared experience and it’s rarely constructive. It’s hard to feel safe and creative when an executive is cursing, shouting at you, and threatening you. Ask my friend how it felt to have a laptop tossed at them…

The red hat mode allows everyone in the meeting to safely express feelings, emotions, and intuition. There is no need to explain or justify feelings. What people sense or feel is always valid while in this mode of thinking and sharing.

Note: this part of the session doesn’t take very long. It’s a “gut check” moment and gives people a chance to express things without the dispassionate sharing of data (white hat), a demand for positivity (yellow hat), etc.

Black hat mode

Black hat mode is going to feel very familiar. It seems to be the go-to activity for many people in meetings. I’m sure you’ve worked with several folks who almost immediately shoot down any idea and are happy to explain why something will never work. I sure have!

It is a valid and useful thinking activity (just ask your Legal team), but it is so much more effective when everyone agrees to be in that mode at the same time vs. debating and arguing throughout the entire meeting.

  • The black hat is about caution and survival.

  • You can identify things that might be unprofitable, unethical, destructive, dangerous, illegal, etc.

  • Discuss the potential downside, risks, flaws, weaknesses, and concerns.

  • What could go wrong?

  • How will we react if something goes wrong?

Black hat is incredibly useful for planning and coming up with contingency plans, too. But, the magic of the process is that you engage in this type of thinking together and at the right time in the meeting, instead of constantly derailing a productive discussion.

Yellow hat mode

The optimistic mode of the yellow hat is kind of fun. It is especially enjoyable to watch one of your colleagues — who is usually quite negative about everything — suddenly start sharing positive examples of potential benefits, value, and opportunities.

Again, the magic is that everyone in the room is engaging in positive thinking at the same time. When is the last time you experienced that?

It’s a good idea to consider probabilities and reality even in this mode. Sure, it would be nice if a knight rode up on a unicorn and handed your team a billion-dollar budget, but it’s highly unlikely.

Some examples:

  • What is our vision of the future?

  • What are the opportunities ahead of us?

  • What does success look like?

  • How does the future change if we succeed?

  • What are the ways this could work out well for us?

  • How will this change people’s lives for the better?

  • How could we improve this even more?

Green hat mode

If you’ve ever attended a brainstorming session, you’re familiar with wearing the green hat. If you had an excellent facilitator, they ensured that everyone stayed in the mode of generating new ideas before debating, arguing, or trying to interrupt someone’s creative flow.

  • What is possible?

  • How can we disrupt the industry?

  • How far can we push things?

  • What new ideas do we have?

  • What is your wildest suggestion?

  • What are the alternatives?

  • How can you build on someone else’s idea?

  • What course of action could we take to make this happen?

Note: I want to point out that not everyone can be put on the spot in a meeting and immediately let loose with creative ideas. Some of us — myself included — need time to be alone, think, and let things flow and simmer a bit.

I recommend you give your colleagues time to prepare for a proposed brainstorming meeting, know the agenda, review the data and information available, and generate some ideas on their own before coming to a green hat session to share and develop them together.

I know this was a lot to digest! Check out the book (Six Thinking Hats ) if you’d like to learn more about how to apply this methodology to your own team discussions.

Becoming allies, not competitors

First, let me be clear about something. You need a reasonably healthy culture — both company and organization — and psychological safety to open up and embrace the Six Thinking Hats methodology. You will fail if others refuse to commit to the process. You will fail if you don’t feel safe being completely honest and transparent with the information you have. It’s hard to be open and vulnerable if your colleagues simply take advantage of it to go for the kill and take the win.

However, if your team really does want to find a better way to collaborate, work together, and make decisions, there is hope. Introduce them to the book and the process. Start experimenting with it in your meetings. Take note of how it, hopefully, improves the quality of your discussions and outcomes.

Work can feel pretty amazing when your coworkers are genuinely your partners seeking the best outcomes (i.e., you’re on the same side of the table). I’ve had this experience in small startups. It feels magical to be aligned with a common goal and no hidden agendas.

Have you tried this approach in your organization before? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!


This week’s professional development challenge

⭐ Define Your Professional Brand
This exercise is about defining your professional brand. What do you want people to remember about your work reputation? What do you wish people would say about you when you’re not in the room? Capture a list of attributes you believe define who you are and how you want people to see you.

Hi, I’m Larry Cornett, a Personal Coach who can work with you to optimize your career, life, or business. My mission is to help you take complete control of your work and life so you can become a more “Invincible You.” I currently live in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with my wife and our Great Dane. I still believe I might grow up to be a beautiful butterfly one day.

Larry Cornett is a butterfly

Invincible Career®
Invincible Career - Claim your power and regain your freedom
Claim your power, regain your freedom, and become invincible in your work and life! I share professional advice, challenges, and tips to help you create your Invincible Career®.