When 1 + 1 = 1...or 3

“Synergy is better than my way or your way. It's our way. Synergy is what happens when one plus one equals three, or ten, or a hundred, or even a thousand! It's the profound result when two or more respectful human beings determine to go beyond their preconceived ideas to meet a great challenge.” 
Stephen Covey

“If you're talking about how you promoted synergy in an organization, that could mean you just got everybody together for donuts twice a week.”
Erin McKean

McKean’s point notwithstanding, I do enjoy donuts. However, I like true collaborative ventures even more. Like most educators, I am a firm believer in the “4 C’s” of 21st Century teaching and learning: Communication, Creativity, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking. In fact, these are often our “look fors” when we visit classrooms in our district. We believe that anytime kids are engaged in these activities, they move from mere “meaning seekers” to “meaning makers.” Moreover, as adults, we try to model these behaviors ourselves, communicating clearly and regularly, creating new ways to do our work, thinking through real problems, and, finally...collaborating.

Looking back over my career, I can point to many examples when I engaged in true collaboration which yielded amazing results, ranging from projects in the districts I’ve served, to books I have written with co-authors, to presentations I have delivered with colleagues. In each instance, the end result was better than what I could have produced on my own. On the other hand, I have also taken part in many “collaborative” projects which were really nothing more than a series of polite compromises. Too often, in fact, what we call “collaboration”--both in our classrooms and in our professional work--falls short of what I think we truly desire from our team efforts.

In the spirit of collaboration, I invited colleagues in our district to help me think about the topic of collaboration, sending a Google Form with questions taken from a Frayer Model template (If you are not familiar with the Frayer Model concept for examining vocabulary, see this link). Using this model, I asked my colleagues for:
  • Their definition of Collaboration
  • Characteristics/Indicators of Collaboration
  • Examples of Collaboration
  • Non-Examples of Collaboration
In perusing their responses, I was drawn to a comment about “synergy,” reminding me of Stephen Covey’s thoughts in the quote above and the idea that 1 + 1 can actually equal 3. When two people experience authentic collaboration (synergy), the final product is something greater than the two of them could have created individually. Even when we are on our “A” game, my very best alone, combined with your very best alone, yields a 1 + 1 = 2 equation. But, when we engage in legitimate collaboration by providing critical feedback, brainstorming, listening actively, disagreeing respectfully, and relinquishing our natural tendency to defend our preconceived notions, amazing things can happen: my best, while interacting with your best, can actually result in a 1 + 1 = 3 situation; what we produce through this collaboration is simply greater than our best individual efforts.

Unfortunately, I have also seen “collaboration” actually produce a deleterious impact upon final results. Indeed, I have witnessed teamwork that results in 1 + 1 = 1 situations. Often, this occurs when students (or adults) are grouped together and each member simply shares their thoughts with everyone else saying polite things and agreeing. It becomes more compromise than collaboration.

Let me provide both an example and a non-example from my own recent experience, starting with a non-example. Not long ago, I was randomly placed in a group with five other district administrators from around the nation. We were allowed two hours to create a presentation which we would share the following day. We began awkwardly and it went downhill from there. The person who offered to create our slidedeck was not proficient in doing so. The person who agreed to share the presentation the following day was not an effective speaker. Each time someone said something, it was added to a slide, regardless of whether it was relevant to the topic. It appeared that many in the group were holding back. I found myself thinking that our “collaborative” effort was less than what each of us could have produced alone and that several of us could have done a vastly superior job if we had done the entire project from soup to nuts independently. This, alas, was a collaboration non-example. We were guilty of sentiments shared by a colleague on my recent survey: Generic compliance to complete the task, always being an "okay, let's add that" group. To be honest, our presentation the next day bordered on embarrassing. This group--comprised of six highly-educated and successful leaders--generated a “collaborative” product that was decidedly less than what each of us could have done alone. Although collaboration can go awry for any number of reasons, in this instance it went south due to sheer politeness: no one was willing to push back on another’s ideas.

On a more positive note, I recently experienced what I consider a solid example of true collaboration/synergy. After finishing a recent book with co-authors Jimmy Casas and Todd Whitaker, we sent it off to several educators we respect around the world, asking them

to read the draft and provide an endorsement for the book if they deemed it worthy. We mentioned a deadline of December 31, 2016 for getting us the endorsement. We were so gratified by the many responses we received and are honored that so many respected friends and colleagues took time out of their busy lives to read our book and provide words of support. Then a surprising thing happened. It was around 3:00 pm on New Year’s Eve. I was having a late lunch while vacationing on St. Simons Island, Georgia. I noticed an incoming email on my phone from one of my educational heroes and all-time favorite thinkers, writers, and human beings, Rick Wormeli. Glancing at it quickly, I saw that he asked me to call him right away. Curious, I opened it and read further. To paraphrase, Rick said that although he felt it was a wonderful book, there was a paragraph he disagreed with so strongly that he would be unable to provide an endorsement unless we discussed and revised the paragraph. Yikes; I was not expecting this. My initial thought? Pretend I had not seen this and resume my NYE activities; instead, I returned to my hotel room and called Rick. For the purposes of this post, what he found objectionable in the paragraph is subordinate in importance to how he addressed it with me: respectfully and honestly. What transpired over the next 48 hours was a back and forth with Rick about the paragraph in question. During this time, I was clearly able to understand his perspective; at the same time, I explained my own, when we differed. In the end, I agreed that the words we had written were not sending an accurate interpretation of our stance--which was, actually, predominantly in alignment with Rick’s.

At one point, I sent him a revised paragraph which I thought was vastly improved and would end the back and forth. I’ll never forget something he said in his response: after agreeing that the paragraph was much better, he said, “But I suspect you did not send this to me because you wanted a ‘yes-man’ so I am going to push back just a bit more.” He then suggested re-wording two sentences. I used approximately 80% of his wording on these two sentences and our book became stronger as a result of the entire process. In the end, I was extremely grateful for Rick’s time and effort. I appreciated him helping to make our book just a tiny bit better. I am honored that he provided a wonderful endorsement for it. More than anything, though, I am grateful for the bold, honest, and respectful collaboration. Oftentimes, we are loathe to say we disagree with something that someone we like and respect says or writes. Rick had the courage--and compassion--to do so and I appreciate it. To be completely honest, at first I was taken aback and just a tiny bit defensive. However, after listening carefully--and sharing my own respectful counterpoints--I focused on the work and making it better. Although it only impacted one short paragraph in a 64,000 word manuscript, to me, it is a clear example of “1 + 1 = 3 collaboration.”

There is a place in our lives, I suppose, for compromise (and there is definitely a place for donuts!). However, when it comes to our professional practices, we must not be afraid to move beyond compromise and work toward collaboration or, better yet, synergy. Truly collaborative ventures are rarely smooth sailing and, at times, we must honestly let people we like and respect know that we disagree with them and we think we can do better. Going beyond our preconceived ideas when collaborating with our colleagues in an effort to have a more profound impact, is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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