What stops us from collaborating more? Or, at all!

Updated: Jul 16, 2019


A while ago, a friend of mine suggested I write a blog on the topic of collaboration. More specifically, he suggested I write about why we don't seem to collaborate well in organisations (Ahem... I guess the first reason is that he ask me to write it, rather than suggesting we write it!!).

I thought it was an interesting topic, because now that I am out of full time employment and work on my own, I leap at the opportunity to discuss a potential collaboration with fellow business owners and entrepreneurs.

So I have been mulling over this topic for weeks now, as I genuinely believe I like to work in a collaborative fashion, and yet, I can only think of a few examples of true collaboration in my working career. I am not talking about team work - I am talking about instances where individuals chose to come together, on their own accord, to work on something for mutual benefit. At least that is how I understand collaboration. Maybe before going any further it is worth defining collaboration. The best definition I could find off the internet was:

"Collaboration is a purposeful relationship in which all parties strategically choose to cooperate in order to achieve shared or overlapping objectives."

The words that spring out of that definition for me are "relationship", "choose" and "shared or overlapping objectives".

Relationships

In the last few months, I have met a number of people that I would like to collaborate with - to develop content, run some workshops and perhaps one day even go into business with more formally. These are people whose values seem to be in common with mine, whose working style and energy are complementary and who I just have an intuitive feeling about. But for now, aside from some very informal discussions, no collaborations are on the immediate horizon.

The reason for "nothing yet"? Well collaboration is a bit like a marriage right? If I am going to choose to share my time and energy and ideas with someone, I want to know that they are worth it. I want to know that they are going to share my interests and bring something of value to the relationship that makes our efforts synergistic. Otherwise what is the point really? So right now, while I have a sense that there are individuals and businesses that I would like to collaborate with, I feel the need to "keep dating" for just a little while longer, while we develop our relationship and get to know each other - a lot better - to the point where we have trust in each other. So first and foremost, relationships, and ergo collaboration, require trust, and trust takes time to build.

If I cast mind back to being an employee in an organisation and think about trust, it is not terribly surprising for me that collaboration doesn't happen all that often. But what is it that breaks down trust in organisations?

If I cast mind back to being an employee in an organisation and think about trust, it is not terribly surprising for me that collaboration doesn't happen all that often. But what is it that breaks down trust in organisations?

  • Well for one thing, trust is often eroded by structural issues that set up individuals and departments to compete with each other - for instance, billing targets that reward the individual not the team, bonus structures that reward departments for working IN the business (today's billings) rather than ON the business (future work pipeline).

  • Another thing eroding trust is perhaps the prioritization of task over relationship - metrics that measure performance based on targets/income generated, tend to minimise the importance of the efforts and relationships that bring about having any work to bill for in the first place. While I understand the premise behind individual targets, they tend to encourage comparison between employees - and if I am not doing as well in my targets as you are, what is my motivation to invest my time in a collaboration rather than just putting my head down and getting my work done? If employees can't or don't take the time to get to know each other, to form relationships, to value each other, to get to know what each one of them does, to get to know how each of them impact on each other when they do their work, then how can collaboration be an outcome?

  • Fear is probably another killer of trust. Fear of judgement, fear of reprisal, fear of failure, fear of disagreeing, fear of being responsible if it fails. Instead of putting yourself out there and sharing ideas, thoughts and concepts, fear so often stops us from truly collaborating on the off chance that "someone thinks I am the idiot".

  • Assumptions also get in the way of trust. By assuming that we know what someone means, rather than asking for clarification, and by not communicating explicitly, we are so easily lead to misunderstand each other, to jump to defensive positions and to disconnect. Add into this, the complexity of diverse languages, cultures, belief systems and so on, and making assumptions can be poison to any attempt to collaborate.

  • Different personalities - specifically the differences between introverts and extroverts and how they show up in meetings can very quickly erode trust when if managed well, could actually be a strength. At a very generic level, extroverts get more air time and are generally listened to in meetings, while introverts are more reticent to share their thoughts vocally, and can be perceived to be non-contributors especially when meetings are the key form of communication. This is not to say that collaboration cannot happen between different personality types but rather that each brings a different strength to the relationship and a different style and preference for communication and sharing of ideas. Their style of bringing their strengths to the endeavour can either be enhanced, or locked up, and impact on the success of any possible collaborative efforts. Francesca Gino's article in the 26 March 2015 edition of the Harvard Business Review, titled Introverts, Extroverts and the Complexities of Team Dynamics, makes some very clear points about the differences between introverts and extroverts in meetings, and how structuring meetings in a different way can encourage introverts to be courageous in speaking up, and extroverts to listen, reflect and be more open to the thoughts of their quieter peers.

  • Lack of face time can also impact on trust - having experienced working with international teams, I know firsthand how well team members get on and work together when they are in the same location, and how shortly after migrating back to their country of origin, issues associated with "lost in translation", poor telecoms connections and the loss of ability to communicate both verbally and non-verbally, can quickly erode confidence and trust.

Choice

So often, collaboration is confused with being part of the same team - in reality, collaboration is about choosing to work together. It's not about being told to work together. Those that truly collaborate, gravitate towards each other because they elect to do so, because they understand each other's way of working, they trust each other to bring their best to the endeavour, they are comfortable with disagreement, and they respect each other enough to fight over the content rather than fighting the person.

It's not that often that employees get to choose who they work with - almost always they are told they are part of a project or part of a team, with very little ability to influence the decision.

For the most part we are far more likely to choose to work with people when we know what they can bring to the party. I will freely admit that I have in the past been quite judgmental of the quiet people in a room, assuming that their silence means they have little to contribute. I have however had a number of occasions to reflect on these assumptions and realise that in many instances they could make great contributions in smaller forums, in writing, or in one-on-one interactions. However, organisations by and large are set up around "the meeting". What this means to me, is that many people are overlooked for not being able to verbally communicate what they bring (because either they haven't yet clarified it for themselves, or they feel intimidated to articulate their value). While they may be interested in collaboration, they may be dismissed by their more vocal peers. The flipside to this, as Francesca Gina points out, is that extroverted personalities can towards feeling threatened by the contributions of others and equally may stay away from situations where they do not have the final say.

So often collaborations are seen as an equal partnership/relationship where each party gets equal decision making powers. John Spector however suggests in his article One Person is the Key to Successful Collaboration, that equality can be the undoing of collaborative efforts. His argument is that that one person has to have decision making power, keep the group on task and be the person to make the tough decisions - the alternative being that parties may end up being too nice, too polite and too indecisive to ever get anything done. I can see is point with regards team work, where one person may be appointed as the team lead. However However, how willingly would any party go into a collaborative endeavour, if the thought of having to submit to another party was to be the starting point? I think I would struggle.

Shared or overlapping objectives

Having shared or overlapping objectives suggests that all parties know what they want out of the collaboration. So often that could't be further from the truth. But collaborating without knowing what both parties want, could mean that by the time you do know what you want, you may be so far from being able to achieve it that the relationship sours. While being honest and upfront about your objectives at the beginning of any potential collaboration may result in many non-starters, the benefit is that those relationships that do proceed to collaborative endeavours may be a lot stronger as a result.

So what to do?

So when the general wisdom is that better thinking tends to come from the use of more than one brain, how do we create an environment where collaboration can thrive, or at the very least get off the ground? Matt Saunby in "Getting to better ideas through collaboration" and Leigh Taylor in "A mindset for creative collaboration", share their ideas and experiences of collaboration as part of the organisational DNA. In quoting Matt Saunby, a culture of collaboration has to come from the top.

"If chief marketing officers and agency CEOs don’t communicate — with actions more than words — that the company values great results above individual contributions, people will become defensive and afraid to share their best ideas." Matt Saunby

After that, I would suggest that the following would certainly contribute to enabling collaboration in organisations:

  • create ways in which employees can communicate using their particular thinking and communicating preferences so that they can be seen, heard and valued in the same way as more vocal staff members,

  • be as open as possible - in communication, in ideas, in information sharing,

  • encourage questions, debate and constructive dissonance,

  • right from the start be explicit and clear on objectives, on what is being assumed, on what is unknown so there is an opportunity to create clarity,

  • practice a culture of learning from mistakes,

  • celebrate failure as an opportunity to grow,

  • encourage and enable employees to spend more time building relationships and not just being task focussed - and model these behaviors,

  • use technology that enables collaboration,

  • when you are working with virtual team members, if ever there are opportunities to have face time, use it to build and strengthen relationships and to co-create a common understanding (a social compact) of how to deal with issues when the team reverts to being virtual,

  • allow collaboration to happen organically and in its own way,

  • measure and reward for collaboration (but don't force it),

  • make sure there is alignment between what you say, what you do, and what you measure.

I would love to hear your experiences on collaboration - good, bad and everything in between.

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