Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Listen. Stop. Smart Collaborate.

The lyrics of Vanilla Ice’s famous (or perhaps infamous) hit “Ice Ice Baby” begin with the immortal lines: “Alright stop/Collaborate and listen.

Lately I’ve been thinking that a rewrite of the lyrics might be in order: “Alright listen/Stop/Smart collaborate.”

Don’t get me wrong. Collaboration absolutely has its place in business, and certainly in the world of human services. But maybe we need to start looking at collaboration in the same way we look at listening to a Vanilla Ice song: something to be done only after a great deal of forethought, and then only when absolutely necessary.

Sadly, too often in our field we collaborate when it isn’t necessary, and therefore the results aren’t always pretty. We wind up with a patchwork of initiatives, committees, or task forces that remain far past their expiration dates.

Why does this happen? I have a theory.

Collaborative teams tend to be made up of two types of people. The first types are the ones who tend to be really skilled in their particular area of expertise and successful in their endeavors in those areas. They are highly sought after for their skills and make good, productive members of a collaborative team.

But there is a second type of person who often winds up on collaborative teams. These tend to be people with strong opinions and lots of time on their hands, who want to be part of the team so they can influence outcomes. Too often, however, they end up influencing outcomes without being held accountable for them.

Not every member of a collaborative team is created the same. However, in our field especially, that basic tenet is routinely ignored. People come to the table with unequal skill and knowledge levels and yet are able to influence results on an equal level. Having an opinion is not always the same as having a solid understanding of the facts and challenges surrounding any particular issue.

Creating a large system of services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) requires a design based on expertise with opinions heard separately. Typically data and opinion is collected using prototypes, or focus groups; not as part of a system design team. I’m saying that opinions shouldn't be considered when undertaking a redesign, but that they should serve as data points rather than jumping off points.

Influence without accountability is far too prevalent in the I/DD world. If we want to be successful in collaborating for system design, we need to do a better job of recognizing the relative value of the members of a smart collaboration. At a certain point, we need to gather data (and opinions) though hearing-like environments, then, in a separate room, put those with the best skills and expertise in charge of using that collection of data and opinions to find a solution to our many challenges. If we can’t do that, we risk staying mired in partial and ineffective solutions that do more harm than good, and that linger on too long while the people we serve continue to wait for that world of opportunity for all abilities.

Then again, what do I know?

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