Taming the Elephant, Part 2

As the story goes, three fish are swimming and meet each other. One of the fish greets the other two, saying, “Hey boys, how’s the water?”

They swim past each other.

A heartbeat later, one of the pair who was asked the question turns to his companion and says, “What’s water?”
Water_ (1)

Building high performing teams is an adaptive problem, not a technical one, because it involves developing both individual and group capacities. It’s also a meta layer of work, which is why Schlecty (2002) terms architecting something like collaboration working on the work. This meta layer is the water; at unconscious incompetence levels of teaming and when we are in it, we don’t register it.

In IB schools our Standard C1 creates a framework for the non-negotiable practices of collaboration. As IB practitioners the children we serve in our programmes need us to build strong teams.

Garmston and Wellman (2016, p. 32) help us to understand that the capacity of collegial interactions “draws upon craft knowledge, self-knowledge, and interpersonal skills to form a web of reciprocal relationships and services.”

One way we can tame the elephant of dysfunctional teams is to work on the work and develop collaboration in our teams. There are several things we can bring in to the working life of a team.

Concept: Clarifying identity

It might be useful to dialog on why the team exists. Who are we? Why are we doing this? Why are we doing this, this way? These questions from Adaptive Schools (Garmston and Wellman, 2016) make clear the identity of the team and its main work. I remember one Individuals and Societies team at a school, which developed a departmental mission statement as one of their first team actions. It guided their work and made it meaningful to each member of the group. Clarifying our goals together is key to rebooting teams. It helps to find the connections and the purpose that binds the team together and the reason why it’s important to continue to work together over time.

Overcoming team dysfunction
Overcoming team dysfunction is an adaptive and human endeavour. Graphic CC by @alohalavina

Construct: Developing the norms of collaboration

Collaboration is a complex set of skills and capacities. Successful collaboration draws on these group-member capabilities:

  • To know one’s intentions and choose congruent behaviors.

  • To set aside unproductive patterns of listening, responding, and inquiring.

  • To know when to self-assert and when to integrate.

  • To know and support the group’s purposes, topics, processes and development.

(Garmston and Wellman, 2016, p.38)

These capabilities are complex. They require awareness of self and others, agency for self and group, and other metacognitive thinking moves. These capabilities include some very difficult skills, like disciplined listening and being intentional about ways of responding.

The benefits to the group when each person listens is that the other members get the message “I am trying to understand you, I care.” Paying attention to developing productive ways of responding includes being able to engage in cognitive conflict – discussion of an issue from a problem-resolving stance rather than a clash of personality and personal stances. If the group can develop both listening and responding skills, trust can develop in the team.

Groups who want to develop these capabilities can start ‘working on the work’ with the norms of collaboration.

seven norms

David Foster Wallace references the story of the goldfish conversation in this video of his commencement speech. In the video, he shows that one norm of collaboration “presuming positive intentions” may not be a default setting and can become a norm with a shift in thinking.

Taking turns to lead the team

Collaboration is a skill set that can be developed. Each person in a collaborative team plays four roles. “Leadership is a function, not a role,” (Garmston and Wellman, 2016, p.33) and each person in the team can play any of these four functions and share leadership of the team.

Hats of shared leadership
Four Hats of shared leadership. Garmston and Wellman (2016).

When leadership in a team is shared, each person develops capacity and the group develops group capacity. As individual members, taking our turn with each of the four hats develops some of the approaches to learning skills that we value in our schools: communication skills, social emotional skills, self-management, mindfulness, resilience, and others.

Content: Focus on learning

The four questions of the PLC are useful in anchoring teamwork to student learning. Our students, after all, are the reasons why all of us are here.

The PLC questions ground teams in the work it does around students.

What do we want students to learn?

How will we know that they have learned it?

What do we do when they are not learning?

What do we do when they’ve already learned it?

(DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many, 2010)

There is a lot of work being done around the human science of groups and their impact on schools.

The agency we seek to create effective teams in our schools supports the school as a living ecosystem, adapting to change.

Team collaboration helps us to create connections in the living ecosystem. Our agency is to nurture each part of the ecosystem, and each person takes care of us.


Suggested further reading:

All Things PLC by Solution Tree
This website is a rich resource for schools who want to adopt Professional Learning Communities as a source of collaborative agency.

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2016). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Wheatley, M. J. (2017). Who do we choose to be? Facing reality, claiming leadership, restoring sanity. SF: Berrett-Koehler.

Photo credits:

Featured photo: Elephants with mahouts © Suvit Maka. Used with permission.

Speaking friendly goldfish © Sam Lee. Used with permission.

Norms of collaboration graphic has no citation information. If it’s yours please contact the author.

All the other attempts at visualising concepts is mine. Let me know if you want to use any of these ones created on Google Drawings and Photoshop.


Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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