Know the difference: Input, consultation, or collaboration?

Better decisions often emerge when they are made with the participation of colleagues and constituent groups. Sometimes, however, the well-intentioned invitation for engagement ends up creating more problems than it solves.

Lack of clarity opens the door for debilitating misunderstanding even when the original motivation is good. Avoiding damaging confusion centers in the need for greater precision when inviting input, seeking consultation, and fostering collaboration. It is crucial that your contributing partners understand the scope of their invitation.

Inviting input is a process of asking others to give their ideas to decision-makers. Input is a one-way form of communication in which people offer their perspective to others who receive the input and act on it. There is no give and take in the process of giving input. It is simply placing information, ideas, and perspectives in the hands of people with the power and authority to do something, or nothing, with it.

Consultation relies on an exchange of information. In consultation, the decision-making person or group engages in an exploration of ideas that takes advantage of dialog, questions, and feedback. In consultation, the decision-makers and the contributors work together to surface mutual understanding, explore ideas, and articulate perspectives valuable to the decision-makers. Ultimately, however, once the process of consultation concludes, the decision-makers are left to determine the outcome.

Collaboration provides a process for sharing the decision-making power. In collaboration, the principle decision-maker/s invite/s others to join them in the process. Collaboration, like consultation, seeks to surface the best ideas through dialog, exploratory questions, and identifying best practices. In collaboration, however, it is the collective participants who determine the best way forward, who make the decision together.

Too often I have seen leaders and organizations describe their process as collaborative when in fact it was actually soliciting input or engaging a form of consultation. Each practice is valuable and has its place in organizational life. The problem arises when people think they are collaborating and share their ideas and perspectives expecting to directly participate in decision-making, but the decision-makers have intended the exchange of ideas as input or consultation, reserving the decision for themselves.

When inviting participation in a project or decision-making, it is important that those leading the process differentiate among input, consultation, and collaboration in order to avoid the hurt feelings, broken trust, and organizational frustration that emerge when expectations don’t match realities. Being clear about your intentions from the beginning may well save you from unnecessary headaches later.

For help in defining your participatory processes and communicating effectively with your constituent groups, contact ArtistryLeads.