Collaborating … when it is difficult

A Review: Collaborating with the Enemy

By Adam Kahane

Discernment suggests that we work with others to define the problem and work together on a solution. Complexity and polarization, however, often make this difficult.

Adam Kahane has been at the center of many of the world’s toughest challenges, seeking to end conflict in Columbia and South Africa, for example.

In this short book (100 pages) he offers several suggestions for what he calls Stretch Collaboration.


Kahane says we typically have four choices:  unilateral force, unilateral concessions, exiting, and collaboration. But traditional collaboration, he suggests, is obsolete. Why? Because we lack control and finding the right answer is elusive.

Stretch Collaboration

His fifth option is what he calls stretch collaboration. Stretch collaboration, he says, requires us to be flexible and UNcomfortable.

“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” – André Gide

Embrace Conflict

This is a both/and solution. The new stretch collaboration is not a forced choice between power and love. It is about balancing power and love. It is about conflict and connection. Asserting and engaging. Fighting and talking. It is like breathing in and breathing out. Both are important. We cannot live with only one or the other. Peter Senge, in his Mental Models chapter, argues eloquently for balancing advocacy and inquiry.

Experiment our way forward

The path is made for walking.” – Antonio Machado

We take one step forward, evaluate, and then take another step. We may not be able to control the future but we can influence it. Kahane describes the efforts to end 52 years of drug wars in Columbia. The government, the military, and the cartel met. No solution. No policy breakthrough. But they were able to discuss four possible scenarios that helped co-create a framework that helped them move forward without an agreement.


Normally we “download” our boilerplate messages or “debate” by exchanging our “positions.” Dialogue, a better option, opens us to deeper thinking. What are the good parts of the enemy’s suggestions? What are the flaws in our thinking? Noticing those nuances leads to new possibilities.

Listen for possibility,” Adam Kahane says, “not certainty.”

Seeing Ourselves

The third part of stretch collaboration is stepping into the fray. Like Pogo, we have met the enemy and the enemy is us. Why? If we can’t see ourselves as part of the problem, we do not yet understand the issues well enough to move forward. The more we protect our own identity and our position, the harder it is to find a way forward. When we hear ourselves “blaming” others, we need to step back to observe our behavior. Only by being in the arena, being a co-creator, giving as well as taking, can we begin to find new solutions.


Discernment is finding a better way. Finding the perfect solution is rare. Being able to tell/sell that solution is even harder. Stretch Collaboration can be the pathway to that better way. Embrace conflict. Listen well. Experiment with new ideas. To paraphrase Gandhi, “Be open to becoming the change you wish to see in the world.”




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Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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