5 Barriers To Collaboration (And 5 Solutions)

Obviously, people do not always work together neatly.

To complicate this, in large decentralized networks, participants are usually unpaid volunteers. Because they are unpaid, you cannot simply order them to do certain things, or even to get along. To make matters even more challenging, you may not always know what everyone is doing.

Scalable organizations are designed for multiple levels and generations. For example, church planting movements rest on the idea of making disciples who make disciples . . . who make disciples. All of these disciple-makers are, in some sense, “part of your apostolic network” even if they are not specifically part of your team, just as all of the contributors and editors for Wikipedia are part of that effort even if the Wikipedia Foundation has only a small core staff. Or, all of the people of various organizations can be considered part of a translation project even if only a few work directly for a specific Wycliffe entity.

By the second generation—the disciples of your disciples—leaders will be “outside” your team’s accountability structure (especially, for example, if you are working with nationals in other organizations and ministries). And, after about the third or fourth generation, they will not only be “outside” your team, they will be “outside” your line of sight. From the fifth generation and beyond most people find it’s very difficult to track individual groups, and even “families” of groups.

Let’s identify just a few examples of challenges caused by this:

• Loss of control. Wikipedia made it possible for anyone, anywhere, to make small edits to the Encyclopedia—without those edits having to be approved before going live, and even without knowing the identity of the person making the edits. When people can act in the name of a group with few controls, how are “wrong” actions prevented?

• Abuse. When people are leading other people, abuse by leaders is always a possibility. When they are “beyond your visibility,” how is this detected? How is it dealt with?

• Loss of credit. When multiple organizations are involved, how much of the effort do you get to claim? Unfortunately in some areas of the world this is a very big question. Some will say “we contributed to a movement which saw _x_ thousand churches started.” Others will simply say “we’re involved with _x_ movements.” Loss of credit can be viewed as a problem, but it can be a good thing, too.

• Inability to measure. Without visibility and reporting, it becomes very difficult to know how big the movement is—and, consequently, whether the actual goal of saturation of the region is reached. Some groups have developed sampling and auditing systems to address this problem, but we have to realize that beyond a certain size, all we can do is try to identify gaps where people aren’t reached, and leave the final tally with the Lord.

• Lack of activity. You might think preventing bad action is the big problem. But it’s not. In fact, in nearly any decentralized network, the biggest challenge is getting people to act at all. To enable action and collaboration (people acting together), values and standards become very important. How easy it is to act, and the standards by which we act together, will govern this. If starting a new Bible study with unsaved people is difficult, then groups won’t get started at all.

As you can see, a decentralized network must go beyond teaching people what to do. They must also set standards for how people will work together, how they will report what is done, how they will be accountable to each other, and how to “call the other person out” when they are not doing what is right. And, most complicated of all, they must do this in a way that can pass from generation to generation, so that even those who are “out of sight” of the founding leadership will do what is right.

Does this remind you of a Biblical verse?

Perhaps the verse you are stretching for is in Deuteronomy 6:

6 And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. 7 Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. 8 Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. 9 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut. 6:6-9 NLT)

Or from 2 Timothy:

2 You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others. (2 Tim. 2:2 NLT)

The structure of a network defines how values are passed on and enforced in order to enable good work and prevent error.

Some companies have grown quite large because they are well-machined. Roles for people, like parts, are clearly defined so that everything runs smoothly. When people “break,” they can be replaced (not always easily) by someone else who is trained in the same role. Efficiency is an important goal in such structures, although there is also a place for innovation.

Machined structures can be very large, run very fast, and achieve great things, but they are subject to “wear-and-tear” and “friction.” When one small part breaks it is possible the whole machine will grind to a halt. And the key for machined structures is, generally, to have everyone within the same structure. As we discussed in part 2 regarding scale, such organizations pay people to perform a role and have the right to manage their time and work processes.

Organic systems are grown, not engineered, and, in fact, the larger a company gets, the more organic it will become. Individual pieces of an organic system can be wildly different and highly unique. Forests have trees, flowers, water, moss, vines, weeds, insects, and animals. All play a unique role, while contributing to the whole. The loss of one cannot be easily replaced, since it is the loss of something unique.

Moreover, while machined parts can be stamped out by the dozens or millions, one organic component, such as a tree or a flower, might take a long time to grow. Organic structures grow in surges—they multiply rather than copy. They spread thousands of seeds far and wide. Organic systems aren’t very “efficient,” randomly and haphazardly spreading through an open space. Yet they are effective by enduring and multiplying until the space is filled. Organic structures can be messy yet beautiful, and last a very long time.

In an organic, scalable network, we will have many unique individual players, and we must aim for “categories” of generally appropriate action that fulfill the vision, rather than specific and controlled actions. A manufacturing plant will build thousands of certain kinds of cars.

A forest will fill a space with a tremendous variety of categories of plants—each individual plant highly unique. A forest doesn’t try to make all the trees the same. Is the Bible study being held in a house, or a coffee shop, or in a park, or under a tree, or in a break room at a business? As long as the Bible study is being held and results in disciples being made, the details don’t matter.

Resolution / Commitment Questions / Count the Cost

In order to collaborate, consider the following:

1. How do you define and communicate the space you are trying to “fill?” Vision casting is critical. The boundaries of the “forest” or the “network” are defined by the vision. Actions are measured first on the basis of whether they contribute to its fulfillment or not.

Tweet this: How do you define and communicate the space you are trying to “fill?” @justindlong @vergenations

 2. What are the values of your network? What are the “rules of the playground?” Wikipedia has established certain behavioral guidelines like “Assume good faith” and “Don’t bite the newcomers.” Some basic rules like “we gather every Monday for a check-in meeting” or “we expect everyone in the network to be sharing what you learn from us with someone else” or “all resources made available in this network must be in at least these three languages” help guide the network in its interactions.

Tweet this: What are the values of your network? What are the “rules of the playground?”@justindlong @vergenations

3. How do you grow participants? Wikipedia encourages people to make their first edit, and then long-time participants will interact with those first-timers to encourage them to move deeper into editing articles. In church planting movements, future disciple-makers start out as today’s disciples. Consider the old proverb, “How many orchards are in one apple seed?” You have to begin by being a disciple worth reproducing (and making disciples worth reproducing).

Tweet this: How do you grow participants? @justindlong @vergenations

4. How do you encourage disciples to multiply? A flower in a yard that never casts seeds will always be a lone flower. Multiplication is key—this is the process of getting existing disciples to make disciples. Through this process, the movement will scale to fill the place and the people—but also, through the process of multiplication, disciplemaking relationships are created. These relationships are key. Although the fifth generation may not be visible to you, it will be visible to the fourth generation. Relationships are the foundation of accountability, which keeps movements healthy.

Tweet this: How do you encourage disciples to multiply? @justindlong @vergenations

5. How do you enable communication? Our garden metaphor breaks down because, as far as we know, plants and trees don’t talk to each other (and probably it’s very good for us that they don’t). We, however, do. Communication enables accountability, knowledge transfer, encouragement and warning. Without communication, we cannot do the “one anothers” of Scripture which are so important to a sustainable fellowship.

Tweet this: How do you enable communication? @justindlong @vergenations

The key to organic collaboration is simple processes used by everyone, passed on to each generation, coupled with personal relationships for accountability and mass peer-to-peer communication platforms. As you consider how to enable collaboration, think carefully about what it is that each individual is to do, how they will do it together, and how they will report it is done. Systems need to be simple, visible, and easily passed on, enabling each generation to “pass on to faithful men what has been taught to them.”


Photo Credit: Oscar Nilsson [CC0] via unsplash.com