Collaboration is inconvenient. It takes time to share ideas, then more time to listen to ideas that other people have, and even more time to try and figure out which idea is best. It’s even harder when we have a big personal investment in our idea, or the other ideas might cause trouble for us.

Early in his career, Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management, was helping to facilitate tense negotiations between mine owners and local unions on whether to close a historic copper mine in upper Michigan. The mine was not profitable, so the owners wanted to close it, but the unions objected to the loss of jobs that closing the mines would bring. The participants were sharply polarized, each deeply invested in a specific outcome favorable to them.

The facts, such as transportation costs, mine productivity, proximity to international borders and market futures formed a complex backdrop to the negotiations and it wasn’t difficult for each party to find evidence to back up its position.

At one point, Roger was able to identify a series of options ranging from closing the mine, linking it to a nearby mine, expanding the mine operations, opening new markets, etc. For each option, he asked all participants to consider this question: “What would have to be true for this option to be the best possible option?”

In doing so, he was able to depolarize the discussion and invite everyone to contribute creatively to the debate. Over time, they all began to agree on the best course of action.

Asking this question when teams begin to polarize works for IT projects also. Asking it explicitly can help reduce our tendency to polarize and to see things only from our own point of view through the lens of our own self-interest. The question helps us explicitly share our often unspoken concerns, encourages us to more readily absorb diverse points of view and to take advantage of the fact that all of us are smarter than any of us.

Rather than approaching collaboration as a contest to be won, this question puts us all on the same side of a choice, if only temporarily, to ask, “How could we get this done?” instead of listing all the reasons why we shouldn’t do it.

For more on collaborative decision-making, read this outstanding book by the fabulous brothers Chip and Dan Heath: Decisive.

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