Clearing the collaboration fog

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​There is a constant call for different parts of our organisations to 'collaborate'. But sadly the conversation often ends up vague

The Economist wrote about the 'collaboration curse' and a Harvard Business Review cover story resonated with many talking about the 'collaborative overload'. In both cases the critique was aimed at being in too many meetings, getting too many emails/notifications and the distractions of open-plan offices. So I’m going to propose four clarifications as a foundation for grounded discussion.

From a vague positive behaviour to an activity with outcomes

I think everyone who works in organisations has heard 'please be more collaborative' – but often it’s used as a synonym for 'please do what I want'. As illustrated by this email telling-off from a client’s finance department.

“Hi Rachel, Please follow the procedure in the future as any costs must be approved by the cost-centre owner in writing. Thank you for your collaboration.”

Fair point, but not collaboration. Collaboration is not following rules, being nice, attending meetings or backing down from challenge. The word collaborative is largely unhelpful for this reason – it sounds specific but ends up as a vague positive behaviour. At Let’s Go, collaboration is a specific group of people working together on a specific challenge with a specific idea of what they are trying to make/create/shift. It can be defined, measured, prioritised, and assessed. When we think of collaboration in these specific terms we can start to see how we can improve the specific endeavours we are part of.

From universal virtue to powerful in its place

Collaboration is heralded as the answer. Which of course depends entirely on the question. While I’m confident you have all been part of effective collaboration, I’m also confident you have each lived through collaboration disasters. What is clear is that we need to know (as I wrote previously for HR magazine) when not to collaborate.

The Cynefin framework is a valuable way to think about whether collaboration is the best approach. When the situation is simple (like fixing a bike) you should follow best practice. For something complicated (like building a 747) you need experts. For something chaotic (like a terrorist attack) you need decisive action. But for something complex (like raising a child, or turning around a business) you need collaboration.

The dimension I’d add is to consider the ongoing commitment required. Collaboration is a great way to get the shared ownership that is so helpful in moving ideas into action. Having people involved in a creative process gets to enduring commitment.

Collaboration is not some sort of universal answer, it’s a powerful approach in its place: on important and complex problems that need shared commitment.

From 'just do it' to creating the right environment

Leaders want people in organisations to collaborate beyond traditional team structures. But Émile Durkheim, the principal architect of modern social science, says

“The individual is dominated by a moral reality greater than himself: namely collective reality”

And while he was not talking about collaboration, he was alive to the fact that our social structure enables or restricts what is possible for us as individuals. Everyone trying to get things done in an organisation knows this. And if collaboration is working in dynamic groups to solve complex problems then thoughtful senior sponsorship is vital to collaboration. Organisations need to model at the top the collaboration they want on the frontline. And then senior sponsors have an active role in collaboration: to set priorities, assign resources, give permission, unblock when things get stuck, and leverage alliances.

From thoughts to tools

There are lots of great books about collaboration and lots of stimulating thoughts. But what we really need is helpful tools that can be incorporated into the practice of collaboration – and that work at scale. As a comparison we have an abundance of tools for self-awareness (Strength Finder, DISC, etc) but there is a relative poverty of practical tools that can help us with what we could call 'group awareness' (ways to navigate the dynamics of collaborative groups effectively).

Last year I was in Rome doing a TEDx Talk where I shared one such tool – The Let’s Go Model – for thinking about group dynamics. But whatever approach you are using we need to move beyond the abstract towards practical tools.

Collaboration isn’t rocket science

In the end collaboration is just getting things done in groups. Every organisation already has pockets of great practice and things that really work in their context. But we need leaders and HR to be having better conversations about collaboration, which can move us to the better practice we so desperately need.

Richard Watkins is the founder of collaboration specialists Let’s Go

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