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To collaborate we need to learn differently

Over the years many of us have mastered the art of learning by ourselves. We read about a new way of doing things or hear a new frame for thinking and give it a go. We stretch ourselves to grow and develop. We attend workshops, or simply reflect on our successes and mistakes and tweak things to get better results (well - let's hope that's what we do!).

When we are working in a collaborative culture though, we need different skills. True collaboration is learning out loud. Our ability to learn from each other in an open and transparent way transforms the team's collaboration beyond simply cooperating to get something done, to creating something more. We step into a co-creation space. To do this well, we need to draw upon new skills that help us to articulate our thinking, learning and 'wondering'.
Collaborative learning draws on four roles for success. Every member of the team needs to access them all for the learning culture to be healthy. Becoming adept at these skills provides the environment where we are challenging our thinking and knowledge. Accessing these roles takes the learning process from purely in our heads to a combination of outward inquiry and inward reflection.
At the hub of the Collaborative Learning Wheel is the learner growth mindset. This mindset is open to learning and challenge. In this mindset, we are individually curious and see failure as opportunity. We understand our solo learning preferences and what supports we need to get out of our comfort zone to stretch. The four other collaborative roles form the spokes that set up an environment of deep learning with others: Sense maker; Challenger; Experimenter; Supporter

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Sense maker

The world is drowning in information. The information and data we have created in the last two years have been more than the history of man. This curve of information overload will only increase in the future. We end up feeling like we are drinking out of the proverbial fire hydrant. When we are in sense maker mode, we take the massive amounts of information, insights, opinions and seek to gain clarity. The Future of Work 2020 report from the Institute of the Future names sense making as its number one skill of the future. The report definition is ‘the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed’. We open the lens of our thinking beyond our first thoughts and assumptions.

When we are in the sense-making mode, curiosity is our primary ally. It helps us make sense of the information we have. Asking questions changes our perspective of our work so we see more clearly.
Where do we want to go?
What would we do differently in this scenario?
What assumptions have we made?
What do the numbers tell us?
We also think from a strategic perspective about the issue at hand – a balcony view of our dance floor. We sort through the data, the numbers, the insights that we have, and identify the points that are critical.
What is non-essential?
Is this conversation taking us down a rabbit hole that is not useful for our end game?
Where are our measures of success?
When teams visually make sense of this information, we see things that allow us to learn more about what we’re trying to do. Visualisation of data and our thinking helps us to see patterns more quickly. One team I worked with visually tracked the customer’s journey. Having it up on a large chart on the wall created a big ‘aha’ for everyone when the loop they had set up in their processes became apparent. The team stood around the chart and wrote up questions along the journey to provoke their thinking. They drew different versions of the journey. They then set about coming up with a plan. They made sense of what was happening.


We never leave status quo if we’re not willing to give things a try. Being an experimenter means that we play lightly with our learning. We try things without a huge fear of stuff going wrong. It’s the key DO element into such methodologies as the PDSA or PDCA approach.

The PDSA cycle is shorthand for testing a change in four steps:1. Develop a plan that will test the change (Plan).
2. Carry out the test (Do).
3. Observe and learn from the impact and consequences (Study).
4. Determine what the modifications are for the test (Act).
Here the whole team is firmly in their learning zone. The play lightly approach is necessary – small tweaks of how we work, stand back and see if it does! If not, try something else. If we’re going to experiment, what we’re looking for is the impact. We’re looking for outcomes that will take us toward our goal.


Another critical role of being a learner in a collaborative space is to be one of the supporters. If everyone is trying to do things in a different way, we need to stop judging and start supporting others and ourselves to try different things. That way, we are not frightened of criticism of our decisions that keep us doing the same. It’s about making it comfortable to fail. It’s also about just being there when someone is having a tough time, of trying something tough, giving them a bit of ‘ra ra’ so that they feel okay about the fact that they are in this together. A colleague's compassion when we are stuck and supportive approach enable us to stay in a learning space, rather than give up. When people take a risk with each other, there’s vulnerability to support. We can make it safe to be vulnerable, or unsafe. Invulnerability is a facade that we put up, which railroads our learning and creates an inauthentic approach to our work.


Challenging thinking through robust discussion is essential to great collaboration and creativity. Challenging our reasoning elevates us out of the ordinary. Exploring our beliefs is an important part of a collaborative learning process. Authentic collaboration is learning out loud so articulating our assumptions, and challenging our thinking with each other, moves us to a space of deeper learning. To check out the types of thinking we need to challenge ourselves, check out my last blog Collaborating, or Simply Cooperating?

How to get started

Identify your strengths and your gaps
Use the collaborative learning wheel to identify as a group where your strengths lie. Where are your gaps? Do you support each other well, yet don't step into challenger, looking carefully at assumption, biases or possible group think? Do you have lots of discussion but don't go and experiment, learing to no action?
Be okay with discomfort
Discomfort is a sign of stretch and growth. It’s the learning zone where we build our capabilities. Recognising discomfort as a learning opportunity builds self-awareness. It helps us stay out of the blames and justifications when someone is trying to see a new path. Feeling uncomfortable is a great physical reaction that shows that there’s learning going on.

Be curious

In a collaborative inquiry space, investigate and explore before coming up with approaches that might work. ‘Inquiry’ is the critical word here. We want to test our thinking in a safe and objective environment. Take on an approach of thinking as if you were beginners at what you do. What if? How could we? What would happen if ... ? Is it possible? What would we find? What thinking could we use here? Learn from each other’s experience. Tell me how? What made you try? What was your approach when? What worked best in that situation?

When we realise that for collaboration to really fly, we need to step into a learning space, we open ourselves up to real innovation, creativity and move towards extraordinary.
Here's to many successful collaborative endeavours!