What does it take to work together well? What do you think?

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by Ruth Wallsgrove
Milton Keynes, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom,
Created on 29 Jul 2017

I would like to explore intelligent co-operation - how we work together in pairs, small groups, big teams to create and grow, ultimately to learn about ourselves. I have been drafting some sections/ blog posts/ blocks of experience and theory, and thought I would post them here and see how it works. Explore what we can use CC for - and also see if anyone else would like to intelligently co-operate on this....



Sat, 07/29/2017 to Mon, 12/31/2018

Intelligent co-operation at work


For intelligent co-operation to happen there has to be recognition on both sides that 'I do not know everything'... that we can't do this without each other

Intelligent co-operation is a cheerful idea: we work together intelligently to joint ends. It is also a specific phrase used by a teacher, Theun Mares, who taught me about it. Theun focuses on intelligent co-operation in the relationship between two individuals, but it is highly relevant to the challenges of team working as well.

The essence of intelligent co-operation is complementary roles. In any venture, one person has the vision, and the other works to help them achieve this vision. Specifically, the second person brings insights from the unknown.

Underneath, both people have the same goal: to learn.

The first person provides the framework – the immediate venture – which gives the second the opportunity to explore, and together they achieve learning they could not achieve alone.

Sometimes I picture this as one person (the vision proposer) holding the other (the diver into the unknown) by their ankles as they reach out from a cliff. We cannot safely stretch into what we do not know without this support.

What has this to do with managing and being managed at work? It’s not necessarily a close resemblance to current working experiences. Too many people feel that the words ‘support’ and ‘explore’ are foreign in their office. True, some managers like to believe they are leaders who provide the vision – or measurable targets, anyway – but act like that makes them the brave explorers who must be supported by their staff. Many of us being managed don’t even feel our bosses have clarity about what they want.

What is radical about the idea of intelligent co-operation is the dependency of manager and managed.

This is obvious, in a way: the manager only holds their position because there are other people to do the work. Unfortunately, in some contexts those workers are fairly expendable individually – there are no special skills or abilities required, and there are always others who could take their place in a day.  Think of call centres, perhaps. The manager (and organisation) is not asking for anything much more than time and diligence from the managed.

However, I would like to focus on situations where managers are more dependent on particular people, because of their skills and experiences. No manager or worker is ever 100% indispensable, but there are plenty of sectors which do depend on people who know things.

The running example I am going to use to illustrate intelligent co-operation – and, sometimes, its lack – is the industry best known to me, which is physical infrastructure, and in particular what is easiest to label in a hurry as engineering. (Areas such as water, electricity, rail and roads, ports and airports.) 

Making decisions about often quite dangerous, and certainly critical physical assets is still hugely dependent on knowledge, skill and experience.  That means managers need not only some workers but often very specific individuals. It’s a field in which experience counts – where, for example, few organisations get a rush of blood to the head and decide to get rid of older workers to replace them with cheaper graduates, but instead worry about what happens when those older workers reach retirement.

This also largely applies to any context that demands skills, whether technical, creative or middle management.

The other vital fact about intelligent co-operation is that it is rarely fixed. For many of us, we are both manager and managed, at the same time, and, as we move through our working life, who we manage and are managed by shifts. We have little choice but to try to understand both roles.

What if you don’t work for or manage anyone?

Recently when I was feeling particularly fed up at lack of co-operation at work, I posted a line on Facebook about being too old to have a boss. I’ve never had so many immediate likes… And the comments from friends and family made me realise that plenty of people I know have been driven by frustration into stepping out of the whole area of organisational management by becoming self-employed. Does that remove them from the challenge of intelligent co-operation?

I suggest that it’s almost impossible to stay in paid work and remove yourself from the kind of interactions that requires complementary roles: mission & structure, co-operating with exploration of the unknown.

For example, close colleagues and I set up our own little consulting partnership 15 years ago, at just the same time as we were exploring the ideas of Theun Mares and allied teachers. We realised fairly fast that similar issues reappear immediately you become a consultant.  As a consultant, the client has the role to provide goals and structure, to take the lead, while you are the follower exploring the unknown for them.

I have to reiterate that this is the set-up, but it is not always done successfully.  It can feel as though the client is wandering lost and your job is to give them structure. However, just as when a manager is vague and the managed are dogmatic – the long term result is rarely pretty. If both of you are not both thinking about the client’s goals, what are either of you doing?

Leading and following

Leading and following is not identical to managing and being managed in a work organisation.  Leading and following happens in many relationships and ventures; and many managers are not in any grand sense leaders. But I believe the development of ideas around the roles of ‘leading’ and ‘following’ in intelligent co-operation are relevant every day in the workplace, and offer us many clues as to effective management (and being managed).

At the heart is taking on what it means to lead, and it starts I think with willingness: the manager’s willingness to provide a lead, not just attempt to control, and the willingness of those being managed to co-operate. Leading means being prepared to build and encourage that willingness to follow your lead. For if those being managed opt out of following, the leadership comes to nothing.

For intelligent co-operation to happen in managing and being managed, it almost goes without saying that there has to be recognition on both sides that we do not know some key things. The manager has to be clear that they don’t know everything they need for this venture to succeed – and the managed, also, have to accept that both they and the manager don’t know everything. Both parties have to want to learn.

The manager has to understand that what the managed will bring to them is going to be, sometimes, truly unknown to them. Not only new, but possibly odd, difficult at first to describe or explain. To truly hear what you do not know, you have to be very open. You must not jump in too quickly to dismiss or tidy up.

What are the signs of intelligent co-operation at work? Sometimes it feels like it’s easier to say what it is not: it’s not one-way communication, or disrespect, it’s not bullying or cynicism.

What it feels like is: mutual respect, even affection. It’s exciting. Nourishing. Both parties feel like they are actively learning, and above all that it takes two. “I could not do this without you.”

Violent agreement

I do not believe this means the absence of conflict, or at least disagreement. One colleague sometimes describes the process of creative collaboration as “being in violent agreement”. This captures the passion and excitement of co-operating to create something new, with a shared goal. And, in the heat of creation, the words “no” and “that’s wrong” can certainly come up quite a lot.

I believe this is partly because if you are truly developing something you did not already know, how we bring forward ideas and judge them involves what Theun calls left side knowledge.  However we do this – and this will be explored in more detail further on - to do something new we have to call on what we have not already thought and reasoned through, and may not be able to articulate clearly to begin with.  You could call it gut feeling or instinct, or seeing new patterns. What it isn’t is something we’ve thought many times before. 

And so, although it is not particularly recommended to shout “no!” to someone else’s new idea, an energetic response is sometimes very natural in the excitement of coming up with something new.  An assumption that everything we do should be reasoned and calm, that there should be no raised voices or opinions that cannot immediately be articulated…. I believe that stifles intelligent co-operation. Any teamwork that won’t allow emotion may also rule out energy or enthusiasm, and the excitement of creation. It is very easy – much too easy - to ignore left side knowledge.






Eileen Inglis

Thanks Ruth! This is very timely for me at work and will come in very handy x