Do You Understand the Most Misunderstood 21st-Century Skill?

Lead Features June / Uncategorized / June 16, 2018

-by Errol St.Clair Smith-

The headline read: “Baboons Work Together To Escape From Biomedical Testing Facility.”

Fascinating… according to this story in the Huffington Post, a group of four curious monkeys put their skills and resources together and achieved something that we humans struggle with daily… working together effectively.

There is near universal agreement about two well-established but conflicting truisms:

 – Working with others is more important now than ever before in the history of humankind.

 – More often than not we don’t work well with each other.

The New Normal

The rapidly growing complexity in the world has caused the complexity within organizations to increase from 50-350% over a 15 year period.  We can glean from the Boston Consulting Group complexity study why working together effectively has become more critical.  None of us  (no matter how smart ) can know all we need to know to solve the increasingly complex problems faced inside or outside of our classrooms. Simply said, walking into a classroom, a school, an organization, or country and closing the door behind us is a shortcut to mediocre performance.  So how are we responding to this new reality?

In 2017  the Flipped Learning Global Initiative started working with a group of educators from around the world to create an international faculty.  Early in the process, we asked the candidates to describe their past experiences of working with others.

– 45% said that their relationships typically produced much more value and impact than they could produce alone.

– 20% said their relationships typically produced significant value and impact, but not more than they could produce alone.

– 35% said working with others typically produced little or no value or impact.

We’ve found that this microcosm of educators closely mirrors what many educators routinely experience and voice when it’s safe to do so.  Which raises another question. If the field of education is all about relationships, why do we so often struggle to work together effectively?

Working Together is Hard

The list of why working together is harder than most of us acknowledge is long. We’ll just touch on a few of the highlights:

  • The main rationale for group work is the promise of finding better solutions to difficult problems. This means all participants need to start with the premise that there may be better solutions to problems than the ones they already know. On the flip side, working with others can also require us to admit to the group when we don’t have an answer at all. Most people who have spent their careers becoming experts don’t like looking ignorant, feeling ignorant, or projecting ignorance.
  • Working with others can increase complexity. Many groups can take any simple task and magically turn it into a multiyear project with infinite dreaded meetings, stress-inducing deadlines, and onerous procedural hurdles.
  • Stifling, choking, individuality-killing pressure to conform. In some group efforts, supporting the prevailing view is expected. In other cases, “going along to get along” is a self-imposed prison for people who don’t want to deal with conflict, rock the boat, or make powerful enemies.
  • Lots of blah, blah, blah, and no action. Working with others often turns into nonproductive gabfests where after all is said and done much more is said than done.  Working in groups that produce little results is demoralizing and de-energizing.
  • Managing the expectation that everyone’s opinion or proposed solution should be given equal weight no matter how uninformed, misguided, or irrelevant the suggestion might be.
  • Managing the desire to win.  Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, a pair of cognitive scientists have concluded that our primary use of reasoning is to win Simply said, most of us are less interested in finding the best solution and are more preoccupied with proving that our solution is right. This introduces all sorts of strange dynamics when we work with others. These dynamics typically exist as subtexts that we all hear and feel but rarely acknowledge openly. Who hasn’t experienced the inner turmoil of being served a self-serving slice of reasoning that we felt obliged to swallow?
  • Most of us are missing in action when we work with others. According to Frederic Laloux in his book Reinventing Organizations, we only bring a very small portion of our true selves to the work we do with others. In fact, he argues that we are less than 1/16 of who we truly are in most cases as we hide behind “professional masks” to protect ourselves.

This list is considerably longer and includes things like lack of trust, poor communication, the absence of common values, no shared commitment, or a general disinterest in learning from others.

Myths and Misconceptions

But wait, there’s more.  On top of the quirkiness of individuals and groups, there is a list of myths and misconceptions that make working with others even more challenging.  See if you recognize any of them:

Belief: Group brainstorming is an effective way to generate great ideas

Fact:  The popularity of group brainstorming began in the 50s.  However, a meta-study of brainstorming by  &  supports decades of research. “Generally, brainstorming groups are significantly less productive than nominal groups, in terms of both quantity and quality.”  Yet, the group brainstorming myth persists despite data showing that solitude produces superior creative output. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” makes this point powerfully in her NY Times’ piece

So is this a case for working alone in our comfortable silos? No, the takeaway is that group brainstorming is not the best place for generating creative ideas, but group work is great for exchanging ideas and enhancing ideas. Indeed, working with others is essential to cross-pollinating ideas, discovering new possibilities, and avoiding broadly known mistakes.

Belief: Working with people who share my experience, and expertise produces the best result.

Fact:  This is a prevailing view among many groups of professionals. In the last five years, we’ve seen strong pushback among educators who were often excluded from education policy decisions and now insist that only educators know what’s best for education.  But the data show that working with people who have the same experiences, motivations, skills, and worldview are more likely to lead to groupthink versus truly creative solutions to complex education-related problems. Conversely, diverse groups generate more ideas. Translation: People from different disciplines, with different worldviews and complementary skill sets, are an asset.

Belief: Relying on other people, other groups, people outside of myself or my “tribe” makes me vulnerable.

Fact:  Today, it is increasingly difficult for anyone to do well alone. Though both the self-made person and tribalism are comfortable relics of the past,  today even competitors, and adversaries are collaborating with each other. The data from all around the world is clear. Connect, cooperate, collaborate, or wither.  Whether we’re talking about a teacher, a school, or a school system, few things leave us more vulnerable than operating in an isloated silo.

The Collaboration Continuum

As you know, “collaboration” is the popular nickname for working well with others. Collaboration is frequently talked about, often attempted, and too often yields poor results. Tim Quinn summed it up when he said, “War is easy, collaboration is hell.” 

We’ve identified a hierarchy with six levels of collaborative relationships. Which ones have you experienced?

  • Synergistic – The relationship produces much more value and impact than the collaborators could produce alone.
  • Accretive – The relationship produces significant value and impact but not more than each could produce alone.
  • Superficial – The relationship is mostly window dressing. No real effort is made to have an impact.
  • Negligible – The relationship consumes a lot of time and energy but produces little impact.
  • Degressive – The relationship slowly erodes the value and impact of all collaborators.
  • Corrosive – The relationship destroys the value and impact of all collaborators.

Making Collaboration Work

A sober, nuanced, pragmatic understanding of collaboration is needed more than ever. Just talking about collaboration, reconfiguring classrooms for group work, or capriciously pulling people together to work on every project, can be more destructive than productive. Effective collaboration requires us to rethink at least five things:

  • When is collaboration appropriate?  Collaboration is not suited for all tasks, at all stages, with all people.  There is a time to work together and time to work in solitude. Perhaps Picasso said it best. Without great solitude, no serious work is possible. Good collaboration is not a binary choice between  A or B. It’s the right amount of A and B, at the right time.
  • Who should be involved? In Ken Segall ‘s book, Insanely Simple,  the former Apple employee writes about Steve Jobs’ notorious obsession with having only the people in a meeting who needed to be in that meeting to get things done. On multiple occasions, he invited staff or visitors to immediately leave a meeting where their attendance served no practical purpose. How many wasteful meetings have you painfully endured?  How many wasteful meetings have you called? (Go to your bathroom mirror and repeat your answer again.) Effective collaboration begins by being very clear about who exactly needs to be involved and why.
  • How do we find the right people?   At FLGI, collaboration isn’t just another thing, “collaboration is everything.”  It’s why we exist. Consequently, we are collaborating daily with hundreds of people, in multiple languages, in every time zone across the globe. We have adopted a set of habits that help us find and engage the right people. Here are the big three:
    • We only collaborate with others where there is an exceptional alignment of purpose, values, objectives.
    • We don’t aim for ‘buy-in.’ Instead, we look for the people who are looking for us. If there’s not a fit, we quit.
    • We move with the people who are ready to move with us. The train leaves on schedule no matter what.
  • Are our skills and assets complimentary or redundant? Synergistic collaboration is most often the result of pairing highly complementary skills and assets. Collaborations with redundancies typically lead to increased conflict. The most productive collaborations meet the Jack Sprat test.  You may remember that Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean. And so between the two of them, they wiped the platter clean. Exquisitely matched skills produce synergistic collaborations.
  • What are your rules for successful collaboration?  We’ve found that having a clear set of personal and organizational operating policies for working with others enables successful collaboration. Here are some of ours:
    • We are hyper-purpose driven. We do what aligns and ignore what doesn’t.
    • We park our egos at the door and focus on finding and executing the best ideas.
    • Simple things get done, complex things don’t, so we keep our processes as simple as possible.
    • We find imaginative solutions by approaching challenges in UNconventional, UNtraditional, UNorthodox ways.

Every day we make our operating policies known in words and actions. Our collaborators may not always agree with us, but these policies bring consistency and congruency to our interactions.

So what?

I’m often amazed by the expectations we have when working with others. Many of us expect the process to be easy going,  uncomplicated, linear, and near effortless. Many are uncomfortable with the ambiguity, uncertainty, and managed chaos that often typifies great collaborations. Perhaps this explains why so many Flipped Learning educators continue (maybe prefer)  to go solo.

FLGI’s ongoing study of the state of Flipped Learning worldwide continues to show that the overwhelming majority of Flipped Learning practitioners are working in silos. Many are the only teachers or professors flipping lessons in their schools or universities. Some are in the only department who have flipped instruction.  Even those who are involved in some peer collaboration with other Flipped Learning practitioners tend to create “local programs” or form “tribes” that are isolated from the global best practices of the worldwide Flipped Learning community.  This likely explains why some of the most experienced and established Flipped Learning veterans are three to five years behind global best practices.  Unfortunately, the prevailing inclination is to go it alone, to build silos instead of bridges, to be a big fish in a small pond.

Working well with others is not always pretty, easy, or enjoyable. But when we get the right people working together for the right reasons, the speed, efficacy, and impact they produce are astounding.

This issue of FLR is all about members of the Flipped Learning community who have left their silos and are effectively working together with other educators around the globe.  Here they share their successes, struggles,  losses, and lessons.

Every one of them will tell you that getting out of their silos and working with others is hard. Virtually all will also tell you that it’s been worth it… undeniably worth it.

The four baboons agree.



Errol St.Clair Smith
I am the Director of Global Development at the Flipped Learning Global Initiative. I joined the education community in 2005, working closely with national education organizations on community outreach and professional development. Over the last decade, I’ve led the development of community platforms for The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE); the Association of Curriculum Developers (ASCD); the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Associations for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the National Association of School Nurses (NASN), the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the National Parent Teachers Association (NPTA), and the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO). I'm honored to have received four Emmy nominations and an Emmy Award for public affairs programming. In 2017 I co-authored Flipped Learning 3.0 with Jon Bergmann. The book was updated based on the AALAS Global Elements of Effective Flipped Learning in 2019.

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on June 20, 2018

Thanks for this article – I found a lot of valuable insights in here. Group work can be good and individual work is valuable, but we need to think about the best process for the task. These are some great talking points for helping to make that choice. I especially resonate with the idea that we often use reason to argue our own position rather than coming to the best decision, and that I don’t like to admit ignorance about something.

    on July 25, 2018

    It’s pretty amazing to see how using reason to argue our own positions has become pandemic. We’re seeing increasing examples of “reason” used to support the most dubious claims. Sort of makes you wonder if we were ever interested in using our minds to find objective truth. Thanks for taking a moment to leave your comments, Jeremy.

    on October 24, 2018

    Gracias por el aporte Errols.
    Sin duda trabajar con otros es un desafío. Cuando se juega la singularidad pueden aparecer conflictos que creo pueden resolverse clarificando los objetivos de la tarea, despersonalizando la dinámica del equipo.
    Nos leemos,

      on October 24, 2018

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Veronica. There is certainly much work ahead for all of us to improve our ability to collaborate.
      We press on!

      Gracias por compartir tus pensamientos, Veronica. Ciertamente hay mucho trabajo por delante para todos nosotros para mejorar nuestra capacidad de colaboración.
      Seguimos adelante!

on June 20, 2018

Excellent article about collaborative work. I have experienced many of the beliefs you depicted and I think that awareness about the importance and enrichment of collaborative work have on our careers is huge. Thanks for pushing me to promote collaborative work!!

    on July 25, 2018

    Gabriela, thanks for affirming that collaborative work is worthy of a deeper second look. Thrilled to hear that you’re feeling motivated to collaborate more!

on June 23, 2018

Thank you for this insightful article. My experience in collaborative work recognises the barriers mentioned here, but my current work, where there is very little opportunity or encouragement for collaboration, has helped me appreciate its benefits all the more.

    on July 25, 2018

    Alison, I appreciate your circumstances. It’s astounding to me how many people are working in places where collaboration is not encouraged or valued. It would be good to hear how you are dealing with this work environment, given what you know.

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