The O Process for Collaborative Alignment

Over the years, colleagues have taught me much about good processes for building collaboration.[1]  I have distilled these processes into an overarching process with six elements, which I draw out in the figure below.  After enough people began to call it the “O Process,” the name stuck.  The O Process supports two forms of alignment that I have found critical to deep collaboration.  The first alignment is within six areas, and the second alignment is across them.  I find that most high performing groups have strength in both alignments, that most mediocre and weak groups have little of either, and that people working independent of each other have none of either.

O Process

The O Process for Collaborative Alignment

The alignment is around the shared higher purpose, the unique contribution of each stakeholder, the specific possibilities each perspective can see, the common seeing of a future reality – a shared probability, the commitment each stakeholder can make to realizing the shared future reality, and alignment around the actions that can achieve collaboration on those commitments.  When aligned these six areas bring great strength and sustainability to any endeavor.

I first seek to find and make transparent the alignment that exists in the higher purpose that everyone involved finds important.  Whether it is the health of children in a school community, a specific consumer focus in a sock company, or a patriotic sense among citizens of a country, something brings the stakeholders of a specific interest together.  When there is alignment around this higher purpose, a common goal can be seen, made transparent, and used to make explicit what is common among groups that seem to be at odds with each other.[2]  Sharing this deeper purpose provides the conditions for guided autonomy, as suggested by jazz pianist Frank Barrett, using limited structures and constraints to maximize opportunities for diversity.  This allows everyone the freedom to contribute their creative best.

Each person makes a unique contribution to the shared purpose.  Most people only value their own contribution, believing that others are wrong-headed, a waste of resource, or secondary in importance at best.  Alignment around seeing each other’s unique contribution validates the other’s existence, builds appreciation, and strengthens the trust that came out of seeing a shared higher purpose.[3]  Each stakeholder brings a unique perspective on what is possible.  Given the specific pathway and specialization of each stakeholder, no two see the same possibilities.  Alignment around seen possibilities highlights how these are different perspectives on the same future reality that the different unique contributions can see.[4]

When there is alignment on these first three areas – shared purpose, values and contributions, shared possibilities – something incredible happens, shared probability, the fourth alignment.  When this happens, everyone involved sees the same future, and that future begins to become “real.”  This happens when people begin to dedicate resources to something, way before it shows up physically.  In the creative process, this coalescing into one shared picture is called an “aha” moment, an insight.  Many processes support the putting together of possibilities into forms that make the probabilities easier to see.[5]

As the new reality seen with others begins to sink in, it comes into the relational space where people begin to make commitments to the contribution they can make to this shared future reality in alignment with the higher purpose they share.[6]  Having made relational commitments about specific contributions each individual can make to the probability seen, it is time for action.  To act in alignment requires alignment around the will to go back to one’s own world and do something.  When the culture “back home” supports these actions, because they fit with what is already being done there, taking on actions and completing them is relatively each.  In many cases, though, the new collaborative probabilities seen require commitments to action that are not consistent with the existing culture back home.  For people to take these actions, then, they require support from the group.

Alignment within each of these six elements provides for a more collaborative process, which is even stronger when there is alignment across the six elements.  For example, this means that alignment around the shared higher purpose sets the context for the alignment around the values and contributions of each participant.  When all six elements are aligned internally and across all six, a completely new level of collaboration emerges.

Some people I have worked with say, “We do that,” meaning that they work through the O process.  Yet, when I explore what they actually do, I find that they often start at the cognition level of possibility and wonder why nobody shows up at the relational level of commitments or the intention level of action.  They often miss that they need alignment on the right-hand side, in deepest collective purpose, and values and contributions to convert the possibilities into probabilities that people will commit to and take action.  When I have seen the full O process engaged, it releases extraordinary power.  It seems that people shy away from alignment on all six elements, because they think it will take longer.  It will not surprise you now to see that, in fact, this alignment actually accelerates the process, leading to much greater efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation.  Why?  Greater efficiency results from people actually relating to the probabilities they co-created towards something they think is important, thus little energy is wasted in trying to push and coerce people into doing things they do not want to do – the reality of most projects.  Greater effectiveness comes about when people align on the purpose they share and on what each other uniquely contributes to that shared higher goal.  Innovation shows up because everyone present saw and contributed their unique perspective, providing a richer environment of possibility in which the probability emerged.  Greater efficiency, effectiveness, and innovativeness from a bit more alignment – a great investment.

[1] This framework evolved out of my many years of working with Scott Spann (Spann, 2007; Spann & Ritchie-Dunham, 2008).

[2] The broad category of process and content tools for aligning around shared purpose describe the hidden purpose and shared values that are already present.  For a broad overview and integration of specific processes for forming and working with shared objectives and values, see (Hammond, 1996; Keeney, 1992).  Recent case studies highlight the benefits of shared purpose, as reflected in the “extraordinary economic and social value” they found in their study of 33 higher-ambition CEOs (Foote, Eisenstat, & Fredberg, 2011).

[3] Tools that align the values and contribution of others focus on: (1) the ability to see and appreciate another human being; and (2) the designer’s ability to see how different parts fit together.  The broad fields are inquiry and systemic design.  For more on emotional and social intelligence, see (Goleman, 1995).  For more on appreciative approaches to inquiry, see (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005; Torbert, 1994).  For more on systemic approaches to design, start with the classic treatise that influenced many schools of design (Alexander, 1964).  To see that each individual has his own values and plays a functional role, the distinction of part versus whole is useful, best described in systems language as a functional part and a whole (Ackoff, 1993) and in integral language as a holon (Koestler, 1967; Wilber, 2000b).

[4] The broader category of tools that align possibilities focus on collaborative idea formation.  De Bono provides two classics on appreciating different perspectives (De Bono, 1971, 1999).

[5] The conversion of possibilities to probabilities deals with different forms of sensemaking – How can I know what I think until I hear what I say? – characterized by the social psychologist Karl Weick (Weick, 1995).

[6] Most good processes have some form of commitment making, following some form of the RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed), or the “atom of work” by Flores, which provides processes for making and keeping commitments (“Using the Methods of Fernando Flores, an Interview of Jack Reilly,” 1997).  Also see (Connolly & Rianoshek, 2002).

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