Published in 2011 in The Collaborative Review, the Journal of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, Vol 11, Issue #4.
Our Collaborative Practice groups begin with basic elements. These elements come together to form small groups that ultimately connect to create complex relationship systems. These systems begin to have a life of their own. At the same time, there is much that we can do to encourage the positive development of these systems and to respond when we hit the inevitable ‘bump’ in the road.
The Basic Elements
What are the basic elements of a CP practice group? Well, it is us, of course; the individuals from law, psychology, finance and other professions that make up the Collaborative Practice community.
Before CP groups existed we were living our professional lives in the fields of finance, psychology and law. The values and ethics of CP were already a part of each of us. How many of us had thoughts like – “There has got to be a better way for people to move through divorce. Isn’t there something I can do?” We were relatively isolated with these thought and feelings. Many of us felt powerless to make a difference.
Then the innovative work of Stu Webb and the California Collaborative Divorce team gave focus to our discontent and a point of connection. Here was a way to join with other like-minded individuals and to focus our energy to make a real difference. Our values and ethics, channeled through commitment and hard work did the rest. Over the next decade more and more dedicated professionals chose themselves to be a part of this community, until now we are over 4,500 members in 24 countries.
Evolution creates diversity
The innovation of Collaborative Practice follows the course of other innovative ideas that move through populations. Everett Rogers (1995)1 provides the motivational profiles of those in any given population who take up an innovation and generally in what order. According to Rogers the diffusion of innovations follows a similar course, no matter what the innovation. The small groups that started CP were likely made up of individuals whose motivations were quite similar but over time the motivational profiles of our members have diversified.
According to Rogers;
(1) First come the courageous and idealistic innovators2(3%) . They are the highest risk takers, pursuing an idea without proof or guarantee. These are the ones who first put form and language to their own discontent. They have a willingness to believe that something else is possible.
(2) After the innovators come the early adopters (16%). These folks recognize a good idea when they see one. They don’t need proof. They are willing to put their backs into the tasks of getting the idea up and running. These people are often the founders of the first CP group in their area. They use their energy into getting things started where they live and work.
(3) Then come the early majority (34%). Less comfortable with risk, they need to see the idea working before they jump in. Once it is there, they want to integrate it into their world. In CP, they are attracted to the networking possibilities that CP presents although they may not be too interested in the heavy lifting.
(4) Once the innovation has become mainstream, the late majority (34%) join in. They may be reluctant but do not want to be left behind. As CP moves into the mainstream, more of our new members will be from this group.
(5) The last group (19%) is the most traditional and resistant to change. This includes everyone else in the population in question. Members of this group may actively resist or even sabotage the innovation.
This group contains those who are retiring or those who are generally out of touch with their profession. Those in this group may never come to a meeting. We may never see them, but our work will be visible to them as it becomes increasingly established in their profession and their community.
Some CP groups are just starting and have mostly the early adopters in their community. For older groups, some of the early majority have joined. For longstanding groups, there may be a significant number of early majority and possibly even a few late majority. The more our groups evolve, the more differences we will find in our interests and motivations. Our ability to adapt our group to those interests and motivations will be critical to sustaining the group. Those who were early adopters and founded their groups now see that while the goal in the early years was to build the group, the focus has shifted. While is it important to continue to grow, a major focus is now on sustaining the group.
Tensions may arise as the innovators and early adopters are frustrated that the early majority and late majority members are not willing to make the same contribution of time and energy as they have made. The early and late majority members may feel pressured to do more than they are willing to do or feel is necessary. Recognizing the source of these tensions, surfacing them and working with the different motivations of the members is an opportunity to enhance the vitality the group.
Another way to consider the diversity within our groups is through their Group Identity; what they perceive to be the purpose of the group. We can look at this in terms of 4 interrelated functions. For most of us, there is some element of all 4 primary aspects. However there are those who will lean more to one than the others. The Group Identity of these different CP members can be heard in their various interests and desires.
The 4 aspects can be seen as:
a. Business Networking. The primary focus of this orientation is to create a stable and productive business. Members of this group are often heard to say “I’m not getting enough referrals.”
b. Professional Practice. These members are more focused on continuing to develop Collaborative Practice and can be leaders in developing new ideas and presenting them locally and internationally. These members would more likely be saying “We need to focus on best practices and skill development.”
c. Social change. A key part of the CP movement is social change in conflict resolution. Members who see the group this way might be saying “Let’s work to change the system.” Or “How can we get this service to other cultural and economic groups?”
d. Individual satisfaction or growth. This group includes those who believe that it takes the ‘person’ of the CP professional to make CP work. They can be heard to report, “This practice has given me renewed energy for the practice of law.” Or “I am learning a lot about myself as I do this work and participate in my CP community. I feel I am a better person.”
Having asked over 100 CP practitioners to rank order their Group Identity, it seems that those who take leadership roles see the group as a way to further develop and improve the practice of CP and to encourage social change. Those looking for a new referral source may not be willing to put as much energy into the health and development of the group, preferring to be consumers of what the group has to offer. However, they provide steady membership and help to grow the size of the group. Also, as they get more involved they help CP become more mainstream as they bring the innovation of CP to more aspects of the community. Those members focused on individual satisfaction or growth are often advocates of improved communication and conflict resolution. Practice group leaders can benefit from knowing how their members experience their Group Identity.
In this area, tensions may arise concerning the direction of the group, the focus of activities or the allocation of resources. Holding an awareness that all identities are important and will be the main focus of some group members, practice group leaders can be intentional about including group goals, activities and resources that relate to all 4 aspects. In this way all group members will find something of value. Perhaps even more importantly, all members will have an opportunity to learn about aspects they may not have considered important, thereby expanding their awareness and knowledge base.
In the inner life of the CP practice group we have looked at structural pieces, the motivations and group identities of the group members. Our members are the building blocks of the structure of the group – our anatomy so to speak. Yet we are not static; we are in constant movement. And we are so much more than the sum of the parts. Next we will turn to what could be considered the physiology of our group – the movement and flow of the inner life of the CP practice group.
The Professional Intertidal Zone
The interdisciplinary environment created by CP is unique. In terms of our professions, this is a professional ‘intertidal zone’. Technically the intertidal zone is the area between the high tide line and the low tide line. In the natural world the creatures that thrive in this environment have a wide spectrum of abilities to accommodate the changing tides. They can live underwater for long enough to survive high tide and they can live exposed to the air long enough to survive low tide. There are many points along the intertidal zone where different types of organisms thrive – closer to the high tide line with minimal time under water or closer to the low tide line with minimal time exposed to the air.
If we consider that lawyers, using concrete structures such as legislation and documents and the financial professionals, working with numbers that add up and don’t change their minds over night, are like land creatures. They have (relatively) solid ground to stand on. In contrast, therapists working with subjective reality including strong emotions and the primal pull of family ties are more like water creatures. Our clients feelings come in waves, wash over us and then dissipate (sometimes not fast enough!) Emotions are moving targets and don’t always ‘add up’. Sometimes they change over night.
The lawyers and financial professionals that enjoy CP come into the intertidal zone that is sometimes underwater, relying on their therapist colleagues to maintain balance and forward movement through turbulent emotions. Over time they learn more about how to do this themselves. The therapists that enjoy CP are willing to come up out of the watery world of emotional subjectivity. They can allow the structures of the law and family finance to influence their therapeutic work. They can allow subjective reality to be influenced by the spirit of the law or the inclusion of financial tasks all the while maintaining their ability to work with the emotion that can crash against these structures like huge waves hitting the breakwater in a storm.
The willingness to step into this environment that is not entirely in one’s comfort zone and make a professional home here is a hallmark of CP group members. We establish interdependence with others who are willing to do the same. This requires a strong grip on one’s own discipline and a willingness to securely attach ourselves to each other in order to drift with the ebb, flow and occasional storm of family restructuring.
Within our practice groups there will be variation in how group members adapt to this professional intertidal zone. For some it will be natural. These professionals may already have relationships with other disciplines that existed before CP came to their community. Some of these relationships may even transition into the CP environment. For others it may be more difficult. For the lawyers, this may result in a choice for lawyer only groups or Collaborative Law over CP. For the financial professionals this may mean that they offer allied services like valuations; the therapists may offer traditional therapy or vocational counseling. It could also mean that these professionals do not stay long in this interdisciplinary intertidal zone. Their brief stay may be a benefit to the CP group in terms of future referrals and public awareness.
CP Groups as Relational Systems
In CP, we are only as good as our relationships, since, by definition, CP cannot occur in isolation. However, once so many of us are connected we become more than just a series of connections. We become a dynamic system made up of many levels of integrated relationship systems. Once we are a living system, then the properties of systems or systemic thinking become relevant.
The Mobile. While a systemic view acknowledges that a system includes a number of individuals, it is their interactions, or the relational space between individuals that is the focus of systemic thinking. Change in one part of the system is assumed to influence all of the system. Think of a mobile. If you tap one part of the mobile, all the parts move. The distances between the elements adjust to accommodate the movement of the other parts. Equally lack of change also influences the rest of the system. If you hold one part of the mobile still, the other parts are constrained in their movements
These interdisciplinary CP environments now include many different types of members, and not only lawyers, financial professionals and therapists. After over 10 years of activity, we also have allied professionals, new members, senior members, fully committed members, not really committed members, very active members, members who are less active, student members etc. Everyone altogether creates the system. Some perhaps more than others, but by definition, everyone who is a part of a system has power to affect it – even if it is by not doing.
For example, the Vancouver group has conducted 2 speed-networking evenings (the second one by popular demand). By the end of the meeting, the room is very loud and lively and people are very engaged. This has any number of positive impacts on establishing and supporting good working relationships between participants, increasing general enthusiasm for the next dinner meeting and encourages the executive in their planning of future organizational activities. This is an activity that raises the energy of the group. On the other hand, there have been projects that have been introduced to the group with very little uptake. The lack of doing or passive response can have a divisive affect on relationships, can lower enthusiasm for future projects and discourage the executive when considering future projects.
Another example is a statement I have often heard from therapists within CP groups. The general idea is that the therapist speaking feels s/he is not getting any referrals from the lawyers. (This could also be true of group members from other professions.) This statement, considered from a systemic perspective, can be seen to negatively impact the group in many ways.
(1) Lawyers can feel overly responsible for ‘bringing in’ clients, thereby carrying the weight of educating the public and generating work for everyone. This can be exhausting and discouraging in the long run.
(2) This sets the lawyers up to have exclusive power over who receives the referrals and the members of CP teams. This will have an impact on the power dynamics of the group.
The therapists, in their belief that they cannot ‘bring in files’ contribute through non-actions. This is similar to what happens to a mobile when you hold one part still. It compromises the ability of the other parts to move.
(1) The therapists do not see that their practices include clients who are divorcing and may benefit from the CP process either with them or another therapist in the CP group.
(2) Therapists have rich professional networks that include other therapists who chose not to do CP and need to be able to refer their divorcing clients out.
(3) These therapist do not see themselves as ambassadors for CP in their community, thereby depriving the public in their community of their general endorsement of CP, and the choice to start a CP process with a therapist rather than a lawyer.
(4) Perhaps most damaging is the belief that they are powerless to start a file and cannot be the ones to put together a CP team of their own choosing, thereby having more control over their CP life.
For all members whose Group Identity is business networking, the business aspect of the CP group may be especially important. Having other CP colleagues who are actively referring to them and to whom they are actively referring creates win-win scenarios for everyone and increases the vitality of the whole CP group. However, initiating files and receiving referrals is important for all of us. When we contribute to the system, these contributions then grow exponentially as the energy moves through the system.
Ripples In the Pond. Another way to think about relational systems in a CP group is as concentric circles extending out from the center. Imagine that at the center we have the individual. The second ring is the dyad or two-person relationship. The third ring is the level of the team on a file or a small supervision group. The fourth ring, the level of the local practice group. The fifth or sixth level, the state wide or international organization. A good metaphor for this is the ripples on the surface of the water when a rock is thrown into a quiet pond.
We have just to look at the growth of CP to see this ripple effect. First there was Stu Webb and the CD team. They talked with friends and colleagues to create small groups. These two initiatives then connected further expanding the interdisciplinary possibilities. More small groups. Eventually these groups came together and formed a new international organization. And here we are. The positive energy and excitement of these ideas moved from the individual, through relationships to small groups and into an international organization that now includes all the levels of the relational system that created it.
This systemic effect can also work in the negative, preventing or constraining growth and development, eventually bringing the level of energy down so low that evolution cannot occur. Consider this scenario, broken down by the level of the system.
Individual: Imagine that 2 CP professionals are having individual difficulties; one at home and one with an important health issue. The issues are such that they do not wish to share them at this time.
Dyad: As they are working together they are a bit off – creating tension or having a conflict. Things that would typically be irritating are now the source of anger. Neither feels up to addressing it at the time.
Team: This tension goes unresolved and pops up in the next team meeting. Due to insecurity about the impact of conflict on future referrals, no one feels comfortable naming the tension. Everyone pretends it is not there. (There is absolutely no elephant in this room!) Given that the discussion does not flow smoothly due to the tension between the two professional friends, the team struggles to address the problem their clients are having. (A lateral move into an overlapping set of concentric circles with the family at the center.) The other team members leave feeling concerned that something is ‘up’ and are hesitant to refer the next file to these team members – at least not together.
Practice Group: One of these two is starting up a committee for the practice group. Their individual situation is getting more serious and they are still reluctant to share about it. (Individual) Still feeling uncomfortable with their colleague, they do not invite the other to participate. The slight is keenly felt by the other and adds to the discomfort. (Dyad) The group loses the energy that this dynamic pair of colleagues usually brings to projects.
IACP: These two colleagues were planning to submit a proposal for the IACP forum but given this tension, let the deadline go by without submitting a proposal. One practitioner is asked to suggest someone for an IACP committee but declines to suggest their colleague, as things are just too uncomfortable.
This scenario may sound all too familiar. The good news is that we can do something different to reduce or even prevent the negative effects of this type of process by intervening at any level of the system. There are many ways to both address tensions as they arise and even to prevent them from beginning.
Trouble shooting in our CP groups
CP practice groups can use systems thinking to help locate our ‘stuck’ spots and to bring resources to these aspects so that they do not negatively impact other levels of the system.
(1) At the individual level we can consider access to training, access to documents, opportunities for skill development, members expectations, aspirations and motivations, levels of engagement, opportunities for networking, self-development and self-reflective practices.
(2) At the level of the two-person relationship we can consider training and support for communication skills and conflict resolution, mentoring for new members, skill development for lawyer-lawyer or coach-coach practices.
(3) At the team level we can consider skill development for interdisciplinary CP team process, team communication development, training in understanding team styles and dynamics through conflict
(4) At the practice group level we can consider the general health and wellbeing of our group, our sustainability, levels of engagement of different members by motivation for joining or their Group Identity, general awareness of group members of the three central disciplines, relationship development among group members, a group-wide commitment to conflict resolution among members and the resources and protocols to do it safely.
The inner life of CP practice groups is just beginning. The innovation and development of Collaborative Practice has resulted in the creation of a new organism – the CP practice group. The interdisciplinary relational systems that make up the CP group have tremendous potential to offer each and everyone of us, no matter what our motivation in joining or our Group Identity, the inspiration, collegiality and practical tools to enhance our professional lives and professional products. With the awareness that the power of the system can also work in a negative direction, we can strive to keep our trajectories moving forward by intervening at any or all levels of the systems that we have created. All interventions will travel through the system, some bringing fresh ideas and new opportunities to us all, in ways we could never have anticipated.
The greatest danger lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.
– Michaelangelo Buanorroti (1475 – 1564)
1 Rogers, E. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations. 4th Ed., New York; Free Press.
2 Percentages relate to the proportion of the total population available to the innovation.