The 8 Watch Outs of Collaboration

Peter Williams, Associate Director

About 10 years ago, when I was working for the US Forest Service, I developed a set of 8 “Watch Outs” for collaboration. Based on my experience, these are what I keep in the back of my mind throughout a collaborative process and whenever someone asks me to help them troubleshoot their situation.

These borrow from the ideas of “decision traps” in the decision literature and the idea of “watch outs” in the wildland fire world.  Many folks in the USFS and other public land management agencies know about the work related to wildland fire, so the language of “watch outs” might be familiar to you.  I also had worked with this “decision trap” idea and thought I might be able to combine those into something useful.

There are 18 wildland fire “watch outs” developed in the 1950’s and 10 decision traps identified by  Edward Russo and Paul Schoemaker in their great 1990 book

As background, decision traps come down to four basic types, adapted from Russo and Schoemaker:

  • Framing, which is about how you see the problem; 
  • Information, which is about the facts you’ll use and how you plan to deal with “unknowables”
  • Process, which is about how you plan to approach making a decision
  • Learning, which is about how you plan to learn from previous decisions and from this one

The 8 Watch Outs of Collaboration

Each item includes a suggested treatment and a common phrase or two, often from Russo and Shoemaker to highlight that connection, that reflect the main idea:

1. Technical ‘Blinders’: Too much structure early in a process can produce ‘nontrivial blind-spots’ [‘Methodism’ & ‘Frame Blindness’ or ‘Plunging In’]

  • Treatment: Adaptive design anchored with principles and priorities jointly developed with participants

2. External Bias: Internal collaboration often missing; can send conflicting message to internal and external participants [‘Lack of Frame Control’]

  • Treatment: Look for ways to tap internal knowledge and experience without overburdening folks

3. Power sharing v. Power leveraging: Participants bring different power bases; how you address power is important, so stay away from focusing collaboration on “power-sharing” because you’ll end up with a dysfunctional power dynamic [‘Group Failure’]

  • Treatment: Allow ‘power sharing’ to emerge by focusing on ‘power leveraging’ first; ask, “who brings what power to the group that might be good to know about?”

4. Agency capture: Land management agency may cross from ‘responsiveness’ to ‘patronage’ towards participants [‘Failure to audit your decision process’]

  • Treatment: Establish clear principles and priorities to ‘check down on’ as process unfolds to protect the integrity of the process [i.e., make these parts of explicit ‘situation awareness’ criteria that you look for during process]

5. Lack of Substance: Good information is as important as good participation; implementation is as important as planning [‘Short-sighted Shortcuts’]

  • Treatment: Quality data regarding managerially and decision relevant questions; meaningful products and events throughout

6. Infeasibility: Resources to move towards desired outcomes may not be feasible [‘Over-Promising’]

  • Treatment: make feasibility and accountability part of dialogue

7. Ballistic Behavior:  Assuming actions will produce desired outcomes without unintended or unanticipated consequences, that actions you take will happen just as expected.  [‘Creeping Determinism’ and ‘Overconfidence in Your Judgement’]

  • Treatment: learning, sensemaking, and situation awareness

8. Political “Cow-Pies”: Interference with traditional budgetary and political processes can lead to backlash and the wheels falling off of your project [‘Stepping-In-It’ and ‘Group Failure’]

  • Treatment: Conceptual frameworks that integrate social, political, and ecological aspects and focus on ‘Big Picture’

So, what are your “watch outs”?  What would you add or change?

-May 7, 2019

Peter Williams, PhD

Associate Director
Partnership and Community Collaboration Academy

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