RTI Action Network

Reflections on Collaboration

By: Dawn Miller, Ph.D.Published: July 21, 2011
Topics: Implementation Planning and Evaluation, Leadership, Professional Development

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Dawn Miller, Ph.D, is the Innovative Projects Facilitator for the Shawnee Mission Public Schools.

I have a lot of books on my shelves. I have a lot of books in stacks by my desk. Some get read, some get scanned, and some are left in the stack of “good intentions.” Then there are those books that are “keepers.” These are the ones that I find myself pulling off the shelf every now and then, skimming through and reading the parts that were highlighted or contain my own written remarks. One favorite that falls into this category is by Warren Bennis and Patricia Biederman titled Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. This book highlights seven groups that have accomplished extraordinary things by virtue of an able leader and amazingly talented people. The seven groups are Walt Disney Studios, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, Apple, the 1992 Clinton campaign, the Manhattan Project, the aeronautical engineers who built planes at Lockheed’s top-secret Skunk Works, and the Black Mountain College experimental community.

The authors studied these groups to determine how their collective magic was made, with lessons learned summarized in the end. I’ve used these lessons in several different ways over the years. The work we do in education provides one of the most amazing platforms for these lessons to be realized. The ingredients include an able leader and committed teachers. The authors reinforce that while we can’t guarantee that the groups we are part of will always achieve greatness, there are ways to increase the likelihood that we can. Take a look at the lessons learned below and think about what is, and can be, accomplished when the desired outcome is creating strong and successful learners. I’ve shared a few ideas for groups to discuss as they reconstitute for the school year.

Lesson: Greatness starts with superb people.

Outstanding teams include members who can make connections, who see things differently, who are skilled at solving problems, who have multiple frames of reference, and who are up to the task of accomplishing anything of value.

Questions for your team:

Lesson: Great groups and great leaders create each other.

While great groups all have a great leader, the accomplishments are collective. Leaders of great groups have to find a leadership style that suits that group and demonstrate skilled decisiveness that maintains the group ownership. 

Questions for your team:

Lesson: Every great group has a strong leader.

A strong leader sets a clear vision, recruits others with the vision, acts as a good steward, creates an environment that allows great work to be done, and is worthy of the group.

Questions for your team:

Lesson: The leaders of great groups love talent and know where to find it.

Leaders use a broad network to recruit and utilize the talents of group members. Teams should view their participation in the group as an opportunity for contribution as well as for personal growth.

Questions for your team:

Lesson: Great groups are full of talented people who can work together.

Great groups must be able to work together. They need not always be amiable or pleasant, but working together toward the predetermined goals is a must. An important component of this lesson is that social niceties aren’t the important ingredient here—challenging and respecting each other are the key ingredients.

Questions for your team:

Lesson: Great groups think they are on a mission from God.

This lesson speaks to the group members’ belief that they are seeking to accomplish something very important—something worthy of their best selves. Group members view everything they do as imperative and meaningful.

Questions for your team:

Lesson: Great groups see themselves as winning underdogs.

In a great group, members embrace the notion that they can, and will, accomplish something unthinkable by many.

Questions for your team:

Lesson: Great groups always have an enemy.

Some teams have a clear enemy, and some have to make one up. Having an enemy raises the competition and forces the team to unite and define itself.

Questions for your team:

Bennis, W., & Biederman, P. (1997). Organizing genius: The secrets of creative collaboration. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
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