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Leaders tout collaboration, but what is it?

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Business is full of buzzwords – terms leaders use to talk about the work they do. They leverage things. They move the needle. They’re nimble and agile and they do deep dives, even if they spend large portions of the day at their desks. With this series, reporter Karen Craigo, a poet and former collegiate English instructor, will work to unpack – another buzzword! – some of the language of business, including its connotations, denotations and oddball trivia discovered along the way. This is In Other Words.

It comes up time and again in conversations with local leaders: Springfield is a very collaborative city.

Mayor Ken McClure is a true believer. In fact, his most recent State of the City address mentioned the word five times.

He doubled down on the claim in a recent interview.

“In broad terms, I like to say that nothing of any consequence happens in this community without a lot of people and entities weighing in,” he said. “That’s been proven over the years. What that does is make projects stronger and make the thought processes more critical.”

It’s healthy for people to come together to talk to one another and access different viewpoints, McClure said.

“Ultimately you get a better end product,” he said.

Saying nice things about the city is part of the unofficial job description of a mayor. One newcomer to Springfield is willing to back up McClure’s assessment, however.

Tyrone Bledsoe, CEO of the Student African American Brotherhood, said part of the reason the organization relocated to Springfield in 2020 was the cooperative spirit he’d experienced in the Queen City in 10 years of visits.

“From my first visit a decade ago until this very moment now having relocated our headquarters to downtown Springfield, I have always been struck by the collaboration evident amongst key stakeholders in the community,” he said.

Examples of groups that exhibited a willingness to work together were the City Council and staff, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, Springfield Public Schools, higher education leadership and the philanthropic and nonprofit communities.

“I find myself telling colleagues and friends in other places around the country about the incredible and innovative things happening in Springfield, given I don’t personally know of another city in the country doing the kinds of things Springfield is doing – and open to doing,”  Bledsoe said.

Examples of people touting local collaboration come up often in news coverage.

In an interview for a story in this edition, Meleah Spencer, CEO of The Kitchen Inc., said it happens at all levels in Springfield.

“Being able to have experience from other cities, that’s not always the case. We definitely have a spirit to work together,” she said.

In her day-to-day work, Spencer is often on the phone with other agencies to coordinate sharing resources.

“We don’t hoard it for ourselves if someone gives us something that we have an abundance of,” she said. “Behind the scenes, we’re calling up our partners that we know could use it. We share with them, and they do the same with us.”

Dan Smith, Springfield’s director of Public Works, sang the same tune in an interview for an article on his department published in June.

“We do live in a very collaborative area,” he said. “That just makes everything work better.”

Working together makes the department more streamlined, according to Smith, and that makes it easier to deal with complicated issues.

“The more complex things become, you have to build systems to deal with them,” he said. “We’ve been working as an organization to become as streamlined as we can, and we continue to do that to be as good as we can. We want developers to come and invest, and we want them to succeed.”

That’s the common theme when people use the word “collaboration.” They are working together, sharing the load, to improve everyone’s chances of success.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which offers the origins of English words, the word “collaborator” first showed up in print in 1802, and it was borrowed from the French “collaborateur,” which itself stems from the Latin “collaboratus.”

The meaning can be seen right there in the word, which combines the prefix “co-,” meaning together, and the root word “labor,” a verb that means to work, but usually with the suggestion of pain, suffering or affliction – think of a mother suffering labor pains.

Put simply, collaborators work alongside one another. They share the difficulty and exertion. It’s perhaps an overly dramatic way to talk about a board or job responsibility, which can be a metaphorical pain but is seldom a physical one.

Some downsides
Developer Debra Shantz Hart, owner of Housing Plus LLC, agreed that locals consider themselves unusually collaborative.

“It’s certainly a buzzword for the city of Springfield,” she said. “We have a ton of nonprofits and for-profit groups running around, all trying to find ways to work together.”

And Hart said we do live in a friendly place.

“Everybody tries to do the right thing – tries to work together to the extent they can,” she said.

In building low-income housing units, Hart said she learned a great deal about collaboration from Community Partnership of the Ozarks Inc., which taught her that to work with under-resourced people, it is important to build a relationship of trust first. Sometimes that means inviting them to the table to provide input and be part of the decision making – and almost always it means asking them for their opinion.

Hart said some people do a great job of collaborating, but others do not.

“The key to success is that you have to have somebody who’s like the choir director – you need someone to spend time coordinating those partnerships with other community groups,” she said. “If you don’t have that coordinator, you can talk about collaboration, but really it’s probably not going to happen. It takes work, calendars, getting people to show up when they’re supposed to show up.”

Don Harkey, CEO of People Centric Consulting Group LLC, responded to a request for an interview while driving through the cornfields of Illinois.

Harkey offered a surprising assessment: “Collaborating without conflict can be unhealthy.”

According to Harkey, groupthink is a danger of collaborating without allowing for disagreement. To be successful, a collaborative working group must be willing to get vulnerable with one another.

“Any time two humans get together to work, there’s always going to be some conflict,” he said. “There should be some disagreement. If it’s unspoken, it’s unhealthy. There’s no opportunity to benefit from the strengths of all people involved.”

Expressing disagreement out loud builds trust, Harkey said, and that makes for a healthy team.

“We have to be willing to argue – to tell each other our babies are ugly,” he said.


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