Collaboration is not a meeting

At the IBAP conference in 2017, Teresa Tung talked about how responses to teachers’ ideas can either create growth or squash it. The dangerous response that she shared was the response that started with “Yes, but…” (which is now in the title of her new podcast). “Yes buts” teach team members to avoid giving voice to their ideas.

Gaping Void, a company that works with ways to enhance growth cultures, uses the term innovation mortality to call the cycle of idea death that characterises poor organisational cultures. 

It’s clear that sometimes, very small responses repeated over time can kill innovation in organisational cultures. People may think these are tiny events and don’t significantly alter culture. That’s not exactly true.

Small, repeated behaviours over time tend to shape the culture of an organisation. Here’s a metaphor I use.

The Cauliflower Principle

Small patterns repeating over time

A common problem in schools that are trying to cultivate collaboration as a key resource for implementation can provide us an illustration for how this ‘cauliflowering’ happens, or how small patterns of behaviour can result in shaping how the organisation behaves as a whole.

In many schools trying to cultivate collaboration, there are often a few decisions that are made. Two of these might be:

  • Establishing groups that collaborate around common goals, such as skills that a team teaching the same groups of students or a vertical team of teachers teaching the same subject group.
  • Establishing leadership of these teams, like appointing a coordinator or department head.

Sometimes, schools also allocate time in the calendar for these collaborative teams to meet. This can be weekly, monthly; when collaboration is dedicated and regularly held, this establishes a pattern that may become embedded in the day to day behaviours or organisations.

When collaborative structures are in place, the value they might create rests on a few conditions for them to work. 

First, the commitment to the structures is a vital condition. If teams make participation optional for example, that automatically sends the message that it’s not important. 

Second, team leaders need to be tuned in to the team members’ personal experiences within their context. Scheduling collaborative times without deliberate planning, for example, lead to experiences of ‘memo-meetings,’ or meetings where the information could have been addressed in an email or written memo. This laissez-faire approach to team meetings can leave the team members somewhat bored, insulted (because they could have read that information), and left feeling like the leader is wasting their time. Additionally, if a leader decides to ‘wing it’ in those collaborative meetings, that is a sure recipe for team disengagement because effective learners often recognise when the instructor is unprepared.

Third, if there are dysfunctional team behaviours that have not been addressed, and those behaviours continue to undermine the purpose of the collaborative meetings, that may create a mutant form of collaboration and hinder progress on collaborative work.

Fourth, if the team leader is micro-managing and constantly monitoring the team, teams tend to develop anxiety that they might ‘make a mistake’ and suffer negative reviews from the leader. This creates a culture of mistrust and sends the message that the best team members are those who do not make autonomous decisions and there is one source for all decisions – the leader. This type of culture is full of “Yes, but“s.

Tight and loose

In every organisation, there are what we might call ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ expectations. The ‘tight’ expectations are the non-negotiable practices that every member needs to demonstrate. ‘Loose’ ones are the ones that remain negotiable because they depend on circumstances. Leaders who commit to decisions for building the value of collaboration in their teams wisely adhere to their own structures. They behave in ways that are congruent to their intentions. If collaboration is a tight expectation, the team leader builds buy-in to the expectation by modelling the value and supporting the value when team members seem to neglect it.

Modelling the value of collaboration can include clearly communicating about collaborative work and time. Communicating the tightness of the expectations that teams use their collaborative time can be planned for in advance. Allocating time is the structural solution, and team leaders also communicate what those times might be used for, such as curriculum products, examining student work, and other team tasks. Communication about the value of collaboration might also be indirect. For example, sending an agenda in advance that includes purpose of the meeting, goal or expected results, facilitator and other roles, time allocations for agenda items, and specific details like these communicate indirectly the value of the collaborative structure. Short notice, incomplete and haphazard communication and unclear meeting purpose devalues the collaborative structure.

If we don’t bother to communicate something clearly, it suggests we do not think it is that important.

Team leaders who plan for engagement of team members consider the following for each gathering of the team.

  • How does this session fit into the overall action plan for the academic year? The five year strategic plan?
  • Where is each person at their learning trajectory? What support will each stage of competence receive as the learn collaboratively?
  • What strategies might be used to facilitate adult learning in this session?
  • What inclusion strategies will be key to ensure that every person can participate and contribute?
  • How will we know what we understand and can do after this session?
  • How might we reflect on our next steps?

Thoughtful planning to engage team members elevates the purposes for gathering a team. Well-planned and effectively executed collaborative gatherings create the pattern of craftsmanship in the team, or the state of using intentionality to create masterful experiences for team members. High craftsmanship in planning collaborative sessions builds buy-in because the leader models the expectations for how the team behaves together, how to use knowledge and skills to lead productively, and personalises what the school values in the concrete experiences the team participates in.

The patterns of behaviours we engage in collaboratively are powerful teachers. Our commitment to these gatherings, our careful planning so they become purposeful and productive, the setting aside of time dedicated for the gathering, and the intentional nurture of healthy group discourse result from small decisions teams carry out to build a robust culture of collaboration. And, when teams feel each person has a voice we also prevent the innovation mortality that may result from poor collaborative culture.


There are many ways to demystify collaboration. We explore ways a team can pull together, take action and own implementation in a book that’s launching soon.

Make everything your team does, count.

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    Featured Photo by Jennifer Schmidt on Unsplash

    Author: alavina

    Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at http://learnertoolbox.com.

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