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Charles Heckscher
July 1, 2013

The need
We face today problems of unprecedented complexity and severity, including
a once-in-a-century global economic crisis, the worldwide danger of terrorism,
the threat of irreversible environmental damage, and technological
innovations that promise and threaten to upend all our understandings of
birth, life, and death. To find our way through these issues we need more
than ever the combined efforts and knowledge of citizens pulling together.
Instead, we have a retreat to narrow tribalism, and a culture war with
sharply increased division and anger. We are experiencing widespread and
long-simmering breakdown in confidence in our ability to master crises and to
maintain prosperity and security. As confidence in the future declines, people
push with more intensity for their own views before its too late. Growing
desperation makes each party more purist and more willing to impose its
views on others; they attribute their failure to improve things to the fact they
havent entirely gotten their way. At each failure the battles only grow more
intense, as each view blames the others for the growing problems, creating a
vicious spiral of mutual recrimination and a retreat to tribalistic warfare.
Three dominant approaches to these problems are battling in todays political
discourse. One emphasizes the need for rational planning and expert
knowledge. Another proposes freeing individual initiative and
experimentation through a widening of markets. A third seeks to revive
traditional values and relations. All have proved unequal to resolving highly
complex problems in an increasingly interdependent society.
Collaboration is a fourth approach: it brings diverse people together to pursue
common purposes deliberately and cooperatively, engaging the widest
possible range of capacities and perspectives. It is the only one capable of
uniting people across the society and drawing on their full range of
knowledge and commitment. At the same time, it is the least developed and
In many fields today the first three approaches -- administrative, market, and
traditional -- are in contention, but none has worked well. Where collaboration
has been tried, though it is still in its infancy, it works better. For example:
Health care has long been organized as a traditional and closed craft,
with doctors holding knowledge inaccessible to those outside their
community, and patients dependent on their goodwill and selfmonitoring. In recent decades patients and society have lost confidence
in that approach, seeing it inefficient and exclusionary. Insurance
companies and regulators have sought to break the traditional
community by imposing an administrative model with consistent
standards and methods. Another alternative has proposed reliance on
the free market, measuring and publicizing results and letting patient
choice weed out the bad doctors. Neither of these approaches has

worked, alone or in combination: standardized administrative rules are

too rigid, measurements far too crude, and the various solutions have
created only conflict and complexity.
But in some places there are collaborative efforts, in which doctors,
nurses, and specialists come together with patients to discuss
integrated plans that consider a range of values not just pure health
outcomes, but also patient quality of life, quality of work life for
providers, cost. We have found strong evidence that these efforts can
lead both to better patient outcomes and to improved cost control, as
well as much higher satisfaction among doctors, nurses, and other care
Education has seen much the same pattern. Teachers have traditionally
been independent authorities controlling their classrooms, and
educators in general have claimed professional expertise in deciding
curricula. Parents have increasingly challenged those assumptions,
demanding involvement in deciding objectives and evidence of success.
Administrators have tried to manage teachers by applying tighter rules
and standardized lesson plans. Free-market advocates have pushed the
development of choice through charter schools. The results of these
efforts have not been good: frequent bitter conflict; angry and
disillusioned teachers, with the best ones leaving the field;
manipulative behaviors and teaching to the test; and, so far, no
evidence of improvement in educational results.
But in some instances extraordinary leaders or communities have
adopted instead a collaborative approach: bringing parties together,
discussing values, engaging diverse skills and viewpoints. Unions have
worked hand in hand with administrators with a clear focus on the
success of students as well as the support of the parents. Teachers
have engaged in peer assessment and counseling, showing a
willingness to be tough on the (relatively few) really bad teachers but
also to help marginal teachers to improve. We have evidence that this
collaborative approach succeeds on several dimensions. In a study we
have just completed, the schools scoring high on standardized tests are
not the ones with the tightest controls or the most market choice, but
the ones highest in cooperative networking among teachers and across
lines of school and hierarchy
In the field of environmental protection, the usual failed panoply of
responses is in contention: relying on the market, applying government
regulation, trusting to the deity. But there are cases in which the
stakeholders come together together to talk to each other and seek
routes together to the shared objective maintaining economic
profitability, which is necessary for sustainability; taking into account
union concerns about job protection; involving local communities, who
may have conflicting needs.

The collaborative vision

The idea of working together seems simple but requires a deep rethinking of
institutions. The combination of decentralized initiative with coordinated
pursuit of shared goals is not part of our tradition. It will take sustained effort
to clarify how this could work and to build support for this vision of society.
Think of society as a team, with diverse skills and perspectives working
together to achieve security, prosperity, and happiness. It is a particular kind
of team: relatively self-organizing, with a lot of improvisation, depending
mainly on the self-developed skills of the players. It gains from being able to
draw on a huge variety of capabilities and knowledge, and on the active
commitment of citizens. It is focused on building the future rather than
defeating an enemy. It is open to new ideas and influences that make a real
contribution to those purposes. People have a basic orientation of
cooperation rather than competitive self-interest, but they are not passive or
conformist: they are very willing to argue and push and to try out new things,
within an overall framework of help each other and moving towards common
Such teams do exist in many parts of the society, and we have learned a
great deal in the last few decades about how to build them. The most
developed so far are those driven by strong business purposes, though not
necessarily profit-making. They include open-source software efforts the
Firefox browser or the Linux operating system demonstrate the possibility of
building very complex products, competing with the strongest commercial
firms, through the coordination of volunteers pursuing a purpose they believe
in. Some major businesses, including IBM and Procter & Gamble, have also
contributed a great deal to the learning of how to make collaboration work:
they have developed organizaitons based heavily on flexible recombination of
task forces around shifting tasks.
These organizations have created fundamentally new cultures and organizing
principles. Their key innovations include the creation of shared purpose, the
fostering of an ethic of contribution, and the invention of new mechanisms of
coordination among diverse projects. They are more powerful than pure free
markets or bureaucratic management for solving complex problems, and they
create greater commitment and sense of meaning. They are not only
innovative at the level of culture and community, but also successful in hardheaded practical terms. The challenge now is to extend these principles of
collaboration more widely in the society.
Towards a collaborative society: core principles
The collaborative vision of society has two key elements: the encouragement
of diversity of capabilities, so that each member of society can develop to the
fullest extent; and the coordination of those capabilities for the advancement
of the common good. The key assumptions and elements are:
Diversity of capabilities
Human beings grow and develop through society; both their moral and
material lives benefit from the interaction of many different people with
varied capabilities.

Societies and all their members are strongest when they include the
widest possible range of capabilities working together collaboratively.
It is in the interests of society and all its members to help everyone
develop their capabilities to the greatest degree possible, in order to
enrich the pool from which are drawn innovations and solutions to
difficult problems.
Purposeful coordination
Diversity is constructive only when linked in collaborative relations.
Collaboration requires a basic shared attitude of helpfulness and mutual
respect. This attitude must be taught and reinforced throughout society
in families, schools, workplaces, and local communities.
Collaboration requires a set of mechanisms for bringing people together
to solve problems and perform tasks. This goes beyond systems of
formal democratic voting, requiring deeper and wider engagement.
It is the responsibility of all members of society to contribute as best
they can to the development of their community, and society has the
right to hold them accountable for their contribution.
Societies should seek constant learning and growth, expanding their
scope and capabilities through the engagement of their members.

Building shared purpose: the real culture war

It may seem impossible today to agree on on basic purposes. The culture
war is a real struggle among groups with fundamentally different views of
the world and the purposes of society. The pursuit of collaboration requires
first engaging in this battle and fighting for core principles.
There are some purposes on which virtually everyone can agree. The U.S.
Constitution lists them as justice, security, the general welfare, and liberty.
Today we might need to add at least one more: the opportunity for selfdevelopment, which has grown steadily stronger in our culture over the last
few centuries.
Many current political battles are really about means to these common ends.
But a collaborative society also has purposes that are distinctive,
controversial, and that must be articulated and fought for. A collaborative
community must be diverse rather than tribal, in a way that engages the
diversity of perspectives and capabilities for the public good. It demands of
all members that they contribute as best they can to advancing the core
social purposes. It requires a relatively high level of participation in public
activity, and it a great deal of discussion and argumentation as people seek
to understand and learn from each other. There must be many projects for
social improvement, most of them local, engaging people in shared problemsolving and the construction of alternatives. It must be less unilaterally
focused on commercial activity and economic growth than todays society.
The real culture war is not about particular policies. It is the fight to widen
community rather than narrowing it, to move from a politics of confrontation

to a politics of collaboration. The enemies are those who would retreat to

tribalism, insisting on conformity to some partial vision and trying to impose
it on others; those who suppress other voices they do not agree with; those
who glorify narrow self-interest or restrictive religious beliefs. The challenge is
to argue consistently that a collaborative approach, with mutual help and
learning, is better.
This is, in other words, a battle for legitimacy. There are fierce partisans dug
into strong positions; but most people have not yet joined a side. Many see
that to embrace any of the current ideologies or political programs requires
denying a lot of reality, suppressing a great deal of experience and
aspirations. A collaborative approach has greater potential to make sense of
experiences in complex, highly interdependent modern societies, and to
succeed in building agreement and mutual benefit.
Vision matters. The strongest and clearest visions of society today are on the
conservative side of the political spectrum: that we can solve our problems
through the free market, the traditional family, and the local neighborhood.
This view has driven a remarkably organized movement over the last thirty
years. But its success has revealed its limitations: it excludes too many
people and too many experiences. Thus it has become more shrill and angry,
insisting on imposing its vision rather than seeking to include those who
Our claim here is that existing visions, conservative and liberal, are too
narrow and have therefore become divisive. And its not just a matter either
of balancing them, compromising, being moderate and civil. We have some
serious problems. We need to get together and work on them. And we need
to continue learning how to do that.