Collaborate or Do It Alone? 3 Guidelines to Decide


“I think collaboration can be a good idea and I probably should involve others more in decision-making. But it really slows things down. I can’t involve people in every little detail or we’ll never get anything done around here,” Jim remarked, waiting for my response.

Jim’s natural style was just do it and until recently it had paid off. Now he had gotten feedback he was too much of a Lone Ranger.

Jim was right – you shouldn’t have to compromise on delivering results, and it is a bad idea to involve people in every little detail. Jim needed some guidelines to help him adjust his natural tendencies without going overboard.

Three guidelines to determine when to involve others in decisions:

  1. Buy-in: Do you need buy-in to implement the decision? If others will need to implement this decision, it’s best to involve them early on. The more people are involved, the better they understand the issues and the stronger they are committed to the decision – which ensures faster and more effective implementation. Seeking their input before you make the decision helps. But inviting them to actually participate in the decision-making process creates stronger buy-in and also builds their leadership capabilities for the future.
  2. Information: Do you have all the information you need? Do you have enough expertise on the topic to make an intelligent decision on your own? One danger with complex situations is you might not know what you don’t know.
  3. Impact: How important is the decision?
    • If this is about office supplies, don’t waste your time. Delegate it or do it yourself.
    • If the impact is high and buy-in is needed, collaborate. Make the decision with your team. Involve those who will be impacted by the decision. You need the good thinking of all as well as their commitment.
    • If buy-in is not needed but it is high impact, test your thinking with others to make sure you’re on track. They might see something you’re not aware of.

What About Urgency?

Urgency is not listed because too often it is used as an excuse for making unilateral decisions. Obviously if the fire alarm is ringing and the building is filled with smoke, you shouldn’t call a team meeting to discuss it. However, sometimes when you see smoke, there’s more time than you think. Not everything is as urgent as it seems. One of the principles of managing change is from “The Lesson of the Tortoise and the Hare” – going slow in the beginning can help you get farther faster.


24 comments to Collaborate or Do It Alone? 3 Guidelines to Decide

  • Jesse, reading this I am inclined to believe “do it alone” is extinct. Unless you run a small business where you are the end all and be all, everything you come up with needs to be implemented in areas outside of your domain, so not getting buy in is dangerous to your success. Information is no longer something you have the monopoly on, so again you need to check yourself that your assumptions are not flawed. As for impact, where impact is low, the process is likely to be automated so when people make decisions the impact is likely to be high.

    People do like the excuse of “there is no time” but it is more shying away from the effort of convincing somebody (buy in) than it is about the time it takes. I don’t think in today’s work environment “Do it alone” is not an effective approach in the long run.

    • Hi Thabo, I agree that most workplace projects are high impact and require buy-in. But I don’t believe in always or never because it causes us to get out of balance. There are times we can get over-involved and waste our time. For example, if you’re holding a lunch meeting, does the team need to meet together to make a group decision on what food to order? If you have the information on food allergies and dietary needs, it might be better to order the food ahead of time (unless you want to use it as a team-buiding activity). Personally, I’ve wasted way too much time at meetings discussing the menu (literally and figuratively). Often we’re not even aware of the countless decisions we make each day. It would be an interesting exercise to list each decision you make in one day and how you made it. These same principles apply to families and other settings. I do want to be very clear that I am NOT advocating Lone Ranger leadership. I agree with you that there is no place in today’s organizations for leaders where this a consistent pattern.

  • Jesse:
    Good points here. My struggle through the years is including others who think “traditionally” and having them dismiss great ideas. I have found myself working alone on innovative and out-of-the-box projects to avoid this from happening. Once I have the concept roughed in, then I will release the idea and ask for improvement input. Short of really innovative stuff, I think it is very important to include others. Not only to get buy-in, but to help them in their personal growth and to exercise their decision-making skills. Thanks for the post!

    • Hi Joe, You make a good point about when to involve others. During concept development, nay-sayers can kill creativity. On the other hand, they also bring a perspective that when understood and addressed early on can frog-leap potential obstacles down the road. I understand what you’re saying about the innovative stuff, but even there, I might want to include one or two. No hard and fast rule because each situation is different and it’s a judgement call. Good food for thought, Joe. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Jesse,

    I like the thinking here, and I would consider at least one more reason to collaborate, especially at the small business, or interdepartmental level, and that’s when the outcome of a collaborative choice could combine talent and financial resources, and distribute material risk. This won’t make sense in all situations, but when it does make sense, it can make things happen. :) Because of their focus, those in the habit of thinking solo could miss opportunities to leverage these important benefits of collaboration.

    For those reading along, note I didn’t write “distribute accountability.” We don’t want to “collaborate” with those who are looking for someone else to take on some or all of their accountability.

    @Joe, I agree with you on the innovation point. I’ve experienced it too often where the same folks that complain about a “lone ranger” are the very folks who would have trashed a creative solution quicker than Tonto could say “Kemo Sabe.” Of course, some deft, inclusive communication can go a long way toward coaching folks to collaborating in an innovative direction.

    • Hi Mark, That’s an interesting possibility for a fourth variable – mitigating risk and/or capitalizing on resources (which might be considered “financial”). My thinking in this post was derived from the work of Victor Vroom who created a decision-tree to determine when a decision should be made alone, in consultation or in a group. I’m curious what questions you would ask within this variable to help people determine when to collaborate, – or could it perhaps be considered a part of information? Thought-provoking! Thank you.

      • Hi Jesse,

        Perhaps we could fold this into #3? Truthfully, I was taking the decision to collaborate a bit beyond the yes/no decision point, into the project, since so often those involved in a collaborative decision remain as stakeholders in the chosen direction. Well, let’s look at it:

        The consideration that comes to mind for me, is whether inviting a collaborator will allow us to do more, or see things completely differently, than we are currently considering is possible on our own, thus changing the conditions of the choice, including possibly the originally desired outcome.

        Such an exercise will immediately point up ego-attachment to a certain outcome, and has the potential to get us a little ways past “Known by Self” pane in johari. It’s an area that goes a wee bit beyond logic to engage our sense of “appropriate action.”

        This “sense” which I call in Internal Compass is something I challenge clients to practice—on low risk stuff at first—until they can engage it with confidence.

        Speaking for myself, in times past when I’ve disregarded this “compass,” the outcomes where never as good as when I followed the “needle.” :)

        Of course, unless we’re practicing, if the answer to #3 is widely considered as “not important” then my line of questioning is a bit of overkill.

        Thanks for asking!

  • Great post Jesse,

    Dave McLeod over at THOUGHTstream wrote about something similar recently and before and after he posted it we had some long conversations about why some people default or reflex to collaborative decision-making and some don’t.

    It seems that for some people it is just that, a reflexive action based on old patterns. For some the reflex is to be inclusive and for others the opposite. The problem is that it’s a reflex rather than a choice. Or maybe I’m just too invested in Senge and Oshry :-)

    Ken Thompson over at the Bumble Bee has some great ideas about decision-making in virtual teams that I think can apply to place based teams also. Using his BioTeam rules can work if everyone knows the rules. Once rules are known, like yours above, then it’s permission granted, broadcast everything

    • Hi Jamie, I agree that the goal is to make conscious choices rather than responding reactively based on temperament or old patterns. Keep up the good work you’re doing at THOUGHTstream.

      • Thanks Jesse,

        THOUGHTstream just one of many hats these days. I’m in last few months of an MA project on the adoption and implementation of innovation and one of my working theories is that the way we do things (and the drivers of behaviours) can be an innovation.

        Introducing a mental model like collaboration or shared decision-making to a group not already invested in participatory approaches is a form of innovation and could be moved forward by applying principles of change management and innovation research.

        All my hats are of the same hue though so when I blog or comment on blogs it’s usually from one main “hat” but influenced by the others lol Maybe you could blog about managing multiple profiles and still being yourself :-)

  • Susan

    My supervisor, with whom I have limited contact, lead a group of ASD teachers in trying to create class lists for next year. Then she sent out an email, assigning kids to classes, that had nothing in common with the teachers’ ideas. As a result, three teachers are quitting.

    I’ve considered going to her to talk about qualities of leadership that she may need to take into consideration. She is a nice person who just doesn’t get it….and her mentor is well-known for being lacking in people skills.

    I know it’s not my place to do this but I have to work with the teachers and when they are unhappy, the kids are not happy. And when the entire program staff is unhappy, well, it’s a toxic environment.

    Any thoughts?

    • Hi Susan, That sounds like a tough situation and without more information I’m hesitant to give advice. Does you supervisor understand that the teachers are quitting because of her disregarding their input? I would be tempted to talk with the teachers who are quitting to make sure they have communicated clearly with her and also with her boss. That’s a pretty strong message that’s hard to ignore. It would be best if you could support the teachers in dealing directly with the supervisor instead of getting in the middle of it yourself.
      You mention she’s a nice person who doesn’t have good mentoring. I know you have the skills to help her. But, as I’m sure you know, giving advice to someone who is not asking for it is rarely perceived as helpful. Mix on top of that your reporting relationship with her, and it gets complicated. If you feel strongly you want to help her, maybe you could approach her gently and feel her out on what she thinks about the three teachers reactions. If she’s defensive, forget it. But if she opens up to you, instead of giving her advice right then, tell her you’d like to help her and see if she’d like that. If so, set up a time to talk in a relaxed setting. I am hesitant to even suggest this because I am just concerned about your getting in the middle of what might be an unsolvable problem.

      DOES ANYONE HAVE ADVICE? If you’re reading this post and have any thoughts, they are welcome.

  • When venturing into a project. it’s always good to reach out for innovative ways to improve.

    It doesn’t matter if you’ve done something once or hundreds of times. Getting input from others that have no emotional attachment to the outcome might surprise you. They can ask a question or offer a piece of advice that wasn’t on your radar screen.

    If you receive one piece of information that improves the project by one degree, it’s worth the time to take this extra step.

  • Hi Jesse

    Loved the post. This seems to be a perennial area of both importance and concern — the guidelines you provide sure can helpful to the “Jim’s” of the world, Jesse. My two cents is that there might be other issues for Jim, too, as it sounds like he’s not sure about the value of others’ input and engagement — which would be a bigger issue, of course. It’s possible he’s also got some confusion of participation (where he elicits peoples’ ideas but still makes the call) with consensus (people continue to talk until reaching an acceptable agreement). Perhaps moving to participative input gathering first, then experimenting with a few consensus decisions where ownership by folks is essential, would be helpful. Either way, the nature of the decision process would need to be called out in advance.

    • Hi Dan,

      Indeed, life is never quite as simple as it seems on the surface. It would be nice if all we needed to do was provide good guidelines and the people we coach would immediately adopt them. But as you know, much of our behavior is driven by unconscious beliefs that unless surfaced and examined, will continue to drive the ship. (Discussed in my post “Want To Be a Better Leader? Remove Your Self-Imposed Limitations.”

      I appreciate your pointing out the types of involvement: a consultative approach where you seek other’s opinions and then make the decision yourself and the group approach where you participate as a member of the group and seek consensus, with the leader’s opinion being one voice. In order for the group approach to work, the leader needs to have developed his/her team.

      Agree, it’s imperative to call out the nature of the decision process in advance. People feel quite ripped off when they think it’s a group decision and after the fact find out it was only consultative. (See comment from Susan above to see how that one plays out.

      Thanks Dan for taking the time to share your thoughts here.

  • Yes, I just saw your reply to Susan, Jesse — quite a complicated scenario and as you point out, maybe not quite enough information to really offer meaningful advice — and yet, with that caveat, yours was beautiful. I’m totally with you that assumption sets and self-limiting beliefs are deeply related to the behaviors that can get anybody, and especially leaders into trouble, and your post on Limitations is excellent. In a related way, here’s one I recently wrote, called “A Perfect System of Misunderstanding.” All the best to you!

  • Hi Susan and Jesse,

    When reading about your scenario, one question that came to mind is are you sure you have all the details? One of the challenges we all face with our brains is that it has this tendency to fill in the gaps in order to create a full picture. That’s the neurological mechanism many optical illusions (as well as magic tricks) rely on to create the desired end result.

    In your case, you state that after the 3 teachers saw that the class assignments didn’t conform to what was discussed, they all quit. Honestly, I think that’s a bit of an extreme response, unless we’re willing to consider that there are other factors you might not be aware of (or even the teachers themselves). The phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back” comes to mind in how it’s not necessarily big events, but several smaller events which cascade over time and lead to the final result.

    That’s why I wouldn’t suggest going to this principal “to talk about qualities of leadership that she may need to take into consideration” simply because – based on what you’ve shared here – it doesn’t seem like you have all the details of what lead to this outcome. And as such, any advice or input – no matter how well-intentioned – might not serve to improve things until you have a keen understanding of what’s really behind the actions of both parties.

  • Susan

    Hi Tanveer and Jesse,

    You are right, there are more details that have occurred all year between this supervisor and the teachers. What is true is that the teachers do not feel supported by this supervisor, who does not communicate well with them. She does not problem-solve, speak up at difficult IEP meetings, provide feedback to teachers, but she does like to micromanage wording of goals and objectives on kids’ IEPs….in short, I think she is mismatched for the job. One teacher left mid-year, leaving a very carefully worded and thoughtful list of suggestions/ideas. We’ve seen no attempt at change. Her supervisor responded to lists such as this one with a meeting in which she told the staff that they can’t expect this woman to speak up more because she is an ‘introvert’.

    Frankly, I am tired of listening to the teachers complain about her and don’t know what else to do. I think the teachers have taken some good action and provided feedback, but nothing has changed. I’m stymied.

  • @Susan — I don’t know that anyone can tell you whether you should speak up, to whom, and exactly how to do it. There’s risk here, and your own reputation, integrity and concerns for the kids are all involved. You are in the best position to know. That said, my suggestion would be to 1) get clear on who you want to focus on — the teachers, your supervisor or your supervisor’s supervisor; then 2) for the person you want to speak to, consider a) what is your true message; b) what is your real motivation for wanting to offer it; c) what repercussions and consequences (including that nothing might happen) are you most concerned about, are you willing to live with them, and do you have contingencies in case they come true; d) what other “yes-buts” (as in, “yes, but it’s not my job to do this!” are influencing you. Decide if a and b are stronger and more important to you than c and d. If a and b truly call you and you are willing to take the risks spelled out in c and do, you may well choose to speak up. If c and d are strong and more important for you, you may choose to keep silent. There is no bad decision — just the need to be very conscious about the choice and why you are making it. Having done this analysis you can then work on thinking through how you speak up, or how you are going to cope with not being further involved. Often times the analysis about deciding whether to speak up helps inform how you might want to approach it. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, you could pick up this book, which is filled with stories of “courageous messengers” who were successful, walks through the steps I’ve just mentioned, and offers many other tips and exercises.

  • Susan

    Hi Dan and Jesse,

    Thank you so much! What wonderful, thoughtful feedback. Sitting by myself with years of experience but not being a ‘leader’ in the midst of this problem was hard, and to hear such terrific thoughts is so helpful. And Dan, even though you admit to shameless ‘self-promotion’, I just might pick up the book! And Jess, I totally agree….it helps to get different perspectives. Thank you all so much.


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