Business collaboration is people cooperating to create and add value toward a common purpose. Sometimes there will be a tangible result such as an innovation or a better product feature. Sometimes the result is a relieved customer saying “thank you” or an employee who feels you value her insights and goes the extra mile for you. Gerald Kane of Boston College, in The Power of Unintentional Collaboration, points out that collaboration adds value in ways that doesn’t always show up in the bottom line.
Use With Caution
Yet collaboration isn’t easy, or simple. Nor is it always good. In fact some folks, such as best-selling author and HBR contributor Nilofer Merchant, say collaboration is inherently dangerous because it’s outside of our control, and should be approached thoughtfully and with caution. And as Professor Morten Hansen claims in his book, Collaboration, “Bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration at all.” His research study at Hewlett-Packard showed how collaboration actually made things worse.
With that as our backdrop, let’s explore the challenges I see for creating “good” collaboration:7. Collaboration SkillsBelieve it or not, collaboration may well be a gene built into every person at conception.And while we're predisposed to being "cooperative," it's still a behavior that needs reinforcement. Most of us have been brought up to learn how to cooperate on teams so our team wins. But how often did we help someone who was not on our team become better? How did we know to reach out to help him? And how did he react to our offer of help? With gratitude? Or “No thanks, I don’t need any help.” Collaboration means giving and receiving – two skills we all need better practice in.6. CompetitionSince no firm is completely flat (there’s always at least one person at the helm), and resources are always short, a group of bright, ambitious, talented, and eager people will be competing for job promotions, desirable project assignments, money (budgets and raises), manpower, etc. Competition inhibits trust. No trust, what collaboration?5. KnowledgeMuch of an organization’s knowledge is tacit – making it hard to learn. You glean it solely through watching and listening to your colleagues because people are mostly unaware of what they know. And often, it’s this tacit knowledge that holds the key to successful collaboration. How will you unlock it?“If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive,”
Lou Platt, former CEO, Hewlett-Packard4. EmpowermentEmpowerment is both believing an employee possesses certain qualities and/or abilities and giving her the authority to exercise them. Just how broad / far-reaching is the scope of her authority and how well does she use her abilities /qualities? Remember, it’s not just empowering a chosen few, it’s about empowering everyone.3. ParticipationIt’s easy for people to mouth the words, salute, and then keep doing what they’ve been doing. It’s much harder to have people change the way they’re used to working. There will be those who adopt the not-invented-here attitude. And others who deliberately sabotage any efforts from fear, anger, jealousy or insecurity. Still more will be eager, but become lost and easily discouraged in the new environment. Enticing people out of their comfort zones and helping them be productive takes huge efforts by leadership.2. StructureWhat are the new rules? People want to be treated fairly. Fairly means we all operate under the same set of rules (even if we don’t like them) and with total transparency. Figuring out how much structure vs. freedom is an adventure in collaboration.1. Common PurposeSome goals will be shared. Some won’t. And amazingly enough, some goals might compete with each other. In his HBR article Collaboration is Misunderstood, Andrew Campbell, Director of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre says, “Collaborators cannot rely on a leader to resolve differences…. [they] can’t walk away from each other when they disagree….” This means you need a gi-normous, glorious, awe-inspiring common purpose that transcends all goals and keeps everyone on track and moving forward. And when you link each individual's self-interest (which is the root of competition) to a shared interest, you create the conditions for velocity and passion to take root.