What is Collaboration?


Although a seemingly simple question, the answer is anything but.  In order to do the question of “What is Collaboration” justice John has proposed a book “The Collaboration Paradox:  Why So Many Leaders Sabotage Their Own Collaborations— and Some Tactics for Getting Things Right”.  The following has been excerpt from the outline for this book which begins to discuss what real collaboration is:

“Collaboration is one of those things everyone thinks they understand, but very few actually do. True, some types of collaboration are natural or easy to learn, but the highest, most valuable kind, where everybody in the group is thinking creatively and sharing openly is extremely rare.  Now, in the era of Web 2.0, a wave of new collaboration tools are being unleashed so that even more and bigger collaborations are being announced daily. But most people won’t get much value out of these exciting new tools if they don’t pay attention to the crucial soft ingredients — the behaviors and mindset — needed to make collaboration really work.

My goal in The Collaboration Paradox is to help readers in any field understand what stands in the way of real collaboration. From the time we start school and throughout our careers, we are taught and rewarded for the very traits that make it difficult for us to collaborate effectively. This situation is compounded by the way we teach leaders to rigorously assert control as often as possible so their authority is constantly being reinforced. Controlling people is the opposite of collaborating with them.  As a result, most leaders of collaborations are doing exactly the wrong things when they bring people together to collaborate, and the other people involved in those projects are essentially programmed to derail or resist collaboration.

How Can We Solve the Problems of Creative Collaboration?

Too often, creative collaborations become a sham.  With so many parts, players, and egos involved, simply managing the political aspects of such projects is challenging enough, let alone integrating the results into anything actionable.   In the end, the organizers may make glowing reference to the long list of divas they assembled, but often they have little to show for that effort and almost certainly nothing really new has come from it.

What’s most surprising about this lack of success is that we have an ever-expanding array of tools that can enhance collaboration, such as Wikis, search engines, smart phones, and social networks.  The reasons that collaborations fail, however, involve those crucial soft ingredients mentioned earlier—behaviors and mindset.

As mentioned earlier, the skills we are taught are the most important for success are actually collaboration busters.  In school, at work, and everywhere we are shown that success comes through self promotion and devotion to our own “kind,” whether it is a department, professional field, or political viewpoint.  Young athletes are taught to win at all costs and to celebrate “crushing” their opponents. There are precious few role models who celebrate victory without also celebrating “defeat of the enemy.”  When these same traits are allowed to dominate a collaboration, it becomes a very negative experience.  Only a few participants have any real say.  The rest feel intimidated or exploited, and as if their time is being wasted.  This type of “hollow” collaboration happens so much, that many people are very skeptical about collaborating. In particular, they may have the following fears, which inhibit them from really contributing:

•    Their best ideas will be stolen.

•    Their weaknesses will be highlighted.

•    There will be a hidden agenda.

•    The participants will have such different ideas that they’ll never agree on anything.

•    Certain individuals or camps will dominate.

What Attitudes and Steps are Needed to Achieve Real, Creative Collaboration?

The most important point is that collaboration is a mindset, not a set of steps.   So, while I can recommend steps, and give examples of how they have worked, people will need to shoot for the mindset and try different approaches depending on the situation.

I like to call this mental attitude the “collaborative state.” Helping groups reach that state depends on the mix of people involved, the work done to prepare for the collaboration, and the characteristics of whoever is leading the effort.

The first feature that will decide whether a collaboration fails or succeeds is the choice of collaborators. Many people want the most prestigious and intelligent people they can find, but in fact, it’s more important to get a diverse mix of people who represent different perspectives, skills, and mindsets. Diversity reduces groupthink and amplifies the variety of input.

Then, to get that group to truly work together, the leader must create a unique environment of openness, trust, candor, risk taking, astute awareness, and of sensitivity to the various personalities involved. There must be a clear set of rules for how to act so that people feel safe about expressing their views.  But the participants shouldn’t feel too safe; in fact, it helps to keep them slightly off balance, even a bit uncomfortable, so that they are open to the unexpected and  willing to be unorthodox if that’s what is necessary to get to the answers the group needs. The participants must  be engaged from the beginning, and that requires a lot of preparation and “stage setting.”

Most importantly, the leader or moderator must have impresario-like skills, so that he or she can make certain that every voice is heard, that people are comfortable sharing all their ideas, and that the overall process maximizes the likelihood that the very best ideas will get approved— not just those of the most powerful participants. The leader’s most important tasks include managing divas and helping less well-known participants to shine.

Getting to the “collaborative state” takes a lot of planning and work behind the scenes, in setting the stage, drawing up the list of participants, grooming them for the process, and then overseeing the collaboration.  Many of the tactics that help create that environment are counter-intuitive.  For example, leaders need to cede control – not vigorously exert it. They must also carefully manage the personalities in the group and set an example to show that everyone will be treated fairly and given a voice, and that creative ideas are welcomed. Group leaders must also work against “the system” to make it clear that in this particular setting bullying, patronizing, and relentless self-promotion are considered counter-productive.  If the right steps are followed, and a group does reach peak collaboration, amazing things can happen.”

 Posted by at 3:46 pm