Long-term collaboration: Beware blaming back and blaming forward

By Charles Lines

Charles Lines (biography)

How can conflict be minimised in long-term collaborations where there is the potential to change priorities over time?

Partners who contributed to creating a collaborative initiative or who joined it early might, quite naturally, prefer to look back at the times when they were most influential and able to shape priorities and contribute significantly to achievements in which they believed.

Also, quite naturally, those who joined a collaborative initiative later may prefer to look forwards towards new approaches and ways of doing things that might increase their influence and enable them to shape priorities and achieve things important to them.

When these preferences for either the past or the future clash, they will form the basis of an often heated argument about a collaboration’s strategy: should it consolidate and build upon existing gains (so maintaining the esteem, credibility and influence of the founders and early joiners of the collaboration)? Or should it break its mould and flow into new and innovative areas of activity (so increasing the influence of the late joiners of the collaboration)?

Even when a strategy has been agreed, especially if the old or new guard feel they have won or lost the argument, the noise and conflicts from within which it was forged will continue to reverberate down the timeline of the collaboration. They will likely cause uncertainty and disagreements about the effectiveness of the collaboration and the value of its achievements. The old guard will continue to look towards the past and point to evidence that the collaboration has failed to live-up to initial expectations. The new guard, keen to introduce new ways, will point to evidence of the collaboration’s ability to move with the times.

Old and new understandings and agreements will overlay within people’s minds in the present of the collaboration, weakening its resolve and clarity of purpose.

New partners will challenge old and founding partners about their failure to do this and that in the first place: they will ‘blame it back’. Old partners will challenge new partners about their inability to do this and that now: they will ‘blame it forward’.

This mutual blaming will be at its most pronounced and dangerous when old and new partners are separated by time: when old partners have left the collaboration and are no longer directly involved in its activities.

Past partners (some of whom will be founders) will be quick to offer their opinions and advice as they watch the future of the collaboration unfold before them. They will be especially sensitive to any criticisms of their work or decision making that are offered as justifications for changes to well-established priorities, plans and practices and very quick to launch counter-blaming offences designed to undermine these justifications and question the competence of those currently doing the collaboration’s work.

In response, current partners will immediately seek to safeguard their reputations by countering the counter-blaming with increasingly strong justifications for their decisions and actions. These justifications will most likely increase past partners’ perceptions of being criticised and blamed (and separation in time could quickly become separation through antipathy).

Partners preferring and fighting for the credibility and reputation of different times, agreements and achievements (perhaps accompanied by the ill-feeling this could generate) will create an unstable and damaging ‘timeflux’ within the collaboration. This will, slowly but surely, encourage ambiguity about the ultimate worth of the collaboration’s achievements to grow within people’s minds. Eventually, this ambiguity will severely weaken the collaboration’s credibility and reputation (and, perhaps most importantly, threaten its legacy).

This situation is most obvious and likely to happen within large scale ‘mega-project’ collaborations; those likely to last for years and often decades, which means there will be much toing and froing of partners during the lifetimes of these collaborations and the type and mix of partners involved at their beginnings will be very different from that at their ends.

Being realistic, this tendency to blame back and blame forward probably cannot be stopped, but it can be managed and minimised by doing the following five things:

  1. Being consistently open and transparent, especially about necessary changes to the work of the collaboration in response to new pressures and demands (and being patient and willing to repeat these reasons as often as required).
  2. Having regular meetings between partners and holding ‘scouting meetings’ where old and established partners can get to know new and potential partners (and where all present can discuss current activities and how these may need to be continued, adapted, changed or added to in the future).
  3. Ensuring meetings between partners are chaired by someone who is trusted by and credible to all, and (to further encourage transparency and promote shared accountability) giving this person the authority to approve meaningful and significant decisions at the meetings with (preferably) the explicit support of all those present (both old and new partners alike).
  4. Noticing blaming language and behaviour and challenging it early so that it does not become a habit which could eventually lead to a damaging culture of blame.
  5. Ensuring the leaders of the collaboration and other high profile and influential partners model a no blame culture and, where necessary, they receive help and support (including coaching and interpersonal skills training) to achieve this.

Does this resonate with your experience? Do you have other management strategies to add?

This blog post is based on a version published at: http://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.com/2018/03/interested-in-time-travel-beware_6.html

For more information and relevant references:
Lines, C. S. (2016). Sleeping with the Enemy – Achieving Collaborative Success. 5th edn. Tallis. Online: http://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/sleeping-with-enemy-achieving.html

Biography: Charles M. Lines is an independent management consultant and a past Senior Lecturer at the UK Civil Service College, where he was Course Director of its partnership and collaborative working programmes. Since leaving the Civil Service well over a decade ago, he has continued to search out and share best practice in collaborative working.

2 thoughts on “Long-term collaboration: Beware blaming back and blaming forward”

  1. Thanks for your reply Mr. Gadlin. I agree that tensions between partners are not necessarily undermining: it depends upon how they are managed, the motivations for them and what their outcomes are. Indeed, I feel that creative and perceptual tensions between partners are essential for collaborations that have to deal with wicked and stubbornly complex problems. Thanks also for pointing out that context is crucial when considering the most effective approaches to collaboration. The business and scientific worlds each have their unique cultures, traditions and drivers that will affect what does and does not work in terms of collaborative activity. That said, as your last sentence makes clear, being willing to think about how good practice in one world could be adopted and adapted by another is always likely to freshen things up and offer some helpful insights.

    As for people personalising things, good old human nature will out at some point. That is, at least, my experience.

    Thanks again for your comments.

  2. In Anna Karenina Tolstoy wrote “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Maybe, but I am not convinced that what he said about families holds for collaborative initiatives. I would argue that generally ‘happy’ collaborations have unique ways of addressing the various challenges they face as they proceed over time. Among those challenges is the challenge of change – change in personnel, change in direction, and change in methods. What ‘unhappy’ collaborations share is the failure to manage those changes. Charles Lines correctly points to the potential tensions between those who initiate a project and those who join it after it is underway. Indeed those tensions can emerge even if there is no change in project priorities. But his post seems to imply 1) that those tensions necessarily undermine effective team functioning; 2) that oldtimers and newcomers are oriented toward personalizing differences differences in approach and; 3) that there is a linear directionality to a project. While that seems to be true for business ventures I think interdisciplinary science based collaborations have the potential to be different. To begin with, in science the very reason for assembling and maintaining an interdisciplinary team is to integrate different perspectives in order to address a complex multidimensional problem. To do that there needs to be a creative tension among perspectives and that requires promoting disagreements that are substantive, not personal. In well-functioning teams the focus is on designing research that will address the problem. Of course scientists are also subject to personal rivalries and team leaders need to be skilled at managing and diluting those rivalries. While there may well be some tensions over the direction of a project, especially as data comes in that points to problems in the initial formulation of or approach to addressing the problem, the primary issues to be addressed in a scientific collaboration are not directional but rather integrative. That said Mr. Lines five guidelines for reducing forward and backward blaming can be applicable to science based teams if we think in broader terms than blaming.


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