Tag Archives: teamwork

collaboration

Collaboration works

The proverb that “two heads are better than one” has been in use since at least medieval times.  James Surowiecki’s 2005 book The Wisdom of Crowds showed how aggregating the decision of a group of individuals generally leads to better decision-making than any single member of the group.  When companies collaborate, they make more money. Governments have recognised this and are encouraging more collaboration in industry and science programs.

One of my standard slides when I’m presenting just says “2 + 2 = 5”. I use it when I’m talking about the power of collaboration to illustrate that whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I’ve got no doubt it is true. But is it always true? Is it possible that collaboration can be taken for granted?

We’ve all been in situations where a ‘team’ is thrown together for a task or project but just doesn’t work that well. Just because better choices can be made through a group doesn’t necessarily mean using a group is always the best way forward. There is growing evidence that when creativity is involved, individuals will often outperform a group.

Professor Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University argues that there are tools and methods to lead to better collaboration. She goes further, providing evidence that creativity is stifled in teams that don’t introduce some formalised methods to collaborate well. For example, Thompson argues that brainwriting, where individuals writing down their own ideas for 10 minutes will yield many more ideas than a similar amount of time of group brainstorming.

Dr Mark Elliott of Melbourne company Collabforge says that collaboration is a way of working that you can learn. His company provides services to teach teams and organisations when and how to collaborate.

When Government offer to pay for collaboration, such as in the CRC Program, they encourage more of it. The financial leverage of requiring industry to match government dollars is a great way to ensure the resulting collaboration has a strong purpose. Just how a sector collaborates to bid and then run a Cooperative Research Centre is largely up to them. We know some do it better than others.

I argue that once a funding round is announced, it is almost too late to concentrate on the quality of collaboration. Deadlines loom; there is a tonne of work to be done. Rounding up resources becomes the priority. That’s why it is so good to see major CRC and CRC-P proposals taking a longer time to really develop the quality of their collaborations well ahead of a funding announcement. The CRC Association is trying to assist this process by teaming up with Collabforge to run workshops on Collaboration for Industry Impact. We try to provide ways of enhancing the creativity of collaboration, while not forgetting that there are lots of practical issues that must be addressed in a CRC or CRC-P bid.

Whether you can participate in one of our workshops or not, don’t assume that all collaboration is good, all of the time. Taking the time and effort to think through collaboration itself will help increase its ultimate impact.

 

working collaboratively

Working collaboratively means welcoming tension

Most of us recognise that in specific situations, collaboration is the ideal mode of delivery. We are also getting instinctively better at understanding when it is needed.

For example, we know we need to collaborate if achieving our aims requires a creative solution developed in a complex environment, breadth of expertise, or buy-in and shared ownership from stakeholders. Interestingly, these are often the higher impact challenges or issues we face.

We also know that working collaboratively is almost always challenging. Collaborative efforts are prone to failure and often don’t quite deliver on our expectations. 

Knowing all these things increases the importance of being able to collaborate well when it is required. But this requires diagnosing why it so often goes awry.

Through some 400 collaborative projects over the last decade at Collabforge, we’ve learned a great deal about working collaboratively. We’ve found that understanding the challenges provides valuable cues for setting yourself up for success.

1. Missing “chair”

You and I know what collaboration means, but as a society, we don’t.

There is a gap in our shared understanding. Because collaboration is in our DNA, we get fooled into thinking that we have a common reference point we can rely on – a “chair” we can sit in when needed.

But when it comes to working collaboratively, there are no broadly accepted definitions or methodologies that we can take for granted like there are with project management. So often we fall on our bums when we try to sit in this missing chair.

2. Missing “team”

Collaboration is a team sport.

All great teams need to build their collective capability together. No one would ever expect a team to win a match without first practicing as a team.

Yet organisations regularly form new teams to tackle new challenges, without resourcing the teams to build collaborative capability prior to being expected to deliver.

We expect professionals to be competent collaborators straight out of the gate, in whatever situation we throw them at. However, we’ve likely all had the experience of feeling we are great at working collaboratively, only to discover that in certain situations and with certain people, we aren’t so great after all.

3. Missing “elephant”

When collaborating with other organisations, an implicit question is always, “will we ride your elephant or mine?”

To get their work done, collaboratively or otherwise, organisations rely upon a large and complex integration of culture, processes and tools – an “elephant” their staff members ride.

No one is excited to get down off their elephant and climb onto another unknown and likely cantankerous beast. And frankly, this isn’t a very collaborative undertaking.

However, taking a more collaborative approach and creating a new shared set of culture, tools and processes is often expensive, time intensive and risky. This amounts to launching and managing an elephant breeding program.

Even the task of deciding who will take on these risks, costs and energy can kill a collaboration before it begins.

Preparing to succeed when working collaboratively

1. Invest in building collaboration capability proportionately to the impact you expect it to deliver.

If the outcomes from an initiative are 80% dependent upon great collaboration, then use this percentage as an indicator of the level of resourcing you should commit to building and supporting collaborative capability.

2. Invest time upfront to establish common ground.

Whenever collaboration is an important part of the mix, you’ll get the most out of thinking and talking about it early in the process. Discuss key terms, concepts and assumptions about processes, tools, and, of course, the expected outcomes and impact of your collaboration.

3. Practice working collaborating as a team, separately from the responsibility of delivery.

Ideally from the outset, create opportunities for collaboration that are fun, engaging and decoupled from delivery. For example, ask the group to build a prototype of the imagined outcome in Lego.

4. Facilitate a regular rhythm of collaborative interactions.

The biggest risk to collaborative initiatives is flagging momentum and dropping balls in handovers between organisations. Having a regular and facilitated rhythm of interaction is key to maintaining momentum, continuity and building collective capability.

5. Design for growth while welcoming tension.

Collaborations generate value through the process of resolving tensions within groups. For example, every new participant will necessarily introduce tension and challenges as they are brought up to speed.

Without the challenge of diverse ideas and approaches, groupthink reigns, with peer pressure and conformity shutting down the “hard conversations”. When this happens, the fitness and value of the group’s output drops dramatically.

Therefore, it’s essential to enter collaborations expecting diversity and the challenge of ideas, but to also design processes for resolving these tensions before progressing to the next stage.

While collaboration still largely inhabits the realm of “art”, the likelihood of success is dramatically increased by practice that is supported by theory and method. The first step in working collaboratively is to build shared understanding of the inherent barriers so that we can align better together to overcome them.

Dr Mark Elliott

Managing Director and Founder, Collabforge

Read next: Petra Andrén, CEO of Cicada Innovations, uncovers the collaborative mechanisms that are vital to successful research, industry and startup activity.

Spread the word: Help Australia become a collaborative nation! Share this piece on working collaboratively using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Digital Disruption Thought Leadership Series here.

collaborative relationships

The art of collaborative relationships

When we speak of innovation we increasingly couple it with collaboration. Collaboration is regularly promoted as a positive attribute and a productive means to an end.

In my own research, I promote collaboration as a mechanism for including more women in scientific teams in male-dominated fields, and as a mechanism to sustain research when individuals are juggling the competing demands of life and family.

In this context, at one end of the spectrum we might be speaking of the collaboration that characterises teamwork within an organisation, while at the other end of the spectrum we might be speaking of international scientific collaboration that draws geographically dispersed networks together.

My research over the past decade on women in the academy and women in science has heightened my interest in the art of collaboration and how it might encapsulate ‘the way we do things around here’ – our organisational culture.

I am particularly interested in the way in which men are sponsored and socialised into strategic relationships, particularly with business and industry – an opportunity not readily available to most women.

Yet we know little about the social processes that sit behind the scientific production of knowledge, and most of our recognition and reward systems focus on the outstanding individual.

The myth of individual creative genius is a myth that my colleagues who work with remote Indigenous communities – just like those in large international scientific research teams – know is culturally and historically specific.

Those who are privileged to work with Indigenous communities know that collaboration based on deep respect of different ‘ways of seeing,’ encoded in art, language and religion and formulated over extremely long periods of time, is central to sustaining collaborative relationships. Longevity of relationship is particularly highly valued, and the time taken to build respectful collaborative relationships and trust is a critical part of this sustained engagement.

They also know that while knowledgeable individuals are involved, the knowledge is collectively owned and accessible only through well-established protocols.

The art of collaboration is far more than a set of pragmatic, instrumental practices. With a degree of candour, I should state that I am not always a great collaborative partner. I put this down to my academic identity being formed in the discipline of anthropology where the ‘rite de passage’ was years of field research alone in a remote village.

This prepares the aspiring researcher for collaboration from a position of heightened ignorance but not necessarily with academic peers with a common knowledge base. I also evidence deficiencies in two attributes essential to collaboration: time and discomfort with failure.

Innovation demands the time to build teams, network, establish cross-sectoral collaborative relationships, generate and test ideas, fail, learn and start again, and to translate research findings and disseminate these to a range of audiences. It also requires the time for reflection and exercise of the imagination.

Collaboration at its best generates this time and, at its best, offers a safe space to fail.

Professor Sharon Bell

Honorary Professor College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU

Board Member, Ninti One

Read next: Heather Catchpole: Collaboration at a higher scale

Spread the word: Help Australia become a collaborative nation! Share this piece on collaborative relationships using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Digital Disruption Thought Leadership Series here.

collaborative environments

Environments for collective creation

Having lived and worked in Australia for almost three years now, I’ve heard a lot of talk about collaboration and why it is important to Australia’s future. Unfortunately, it has often been my experience that old habits and ways of working are not facilitating the hoped-for gains that collaboration and collaborative environments could bring this lucky country.

Why is collaboration so difficult?

Collaboration is time-consuming and uncomfortable, especially if you are working with people whose cultures, values and key performance indicators are different from your own. It also requires compromise, and people protecting the status quo may find it is strategically logical to avoid this.

Likewise, collaboration involves the neutral review of data, insights and experiences, followed by open ideation, debate, co-creation and co-design, which can be risky for those who like to pre-determine outcomes before meetings even commence.

Nonetheless, it is generally accepted, in terms of knowledge exchange and value creation, that collaboration in the aggregate results in net positive returns on investment. In short, improving collaboration holds the promise of better research, bigger impacts, more jobs and greater wealth for Australian research-intensive institutions, industry, government and society.

So how can we grease the wheels of collaboration so it is easier, faster and more impactful?

Collaborative environments enable our collective capacity

First, we need to embrace new ways of working, including world-class collaborative environments. Ideally these are custom-built, but really what is required are open, flexible spaces, modern audio and video equipment, and furniture and whiteboards on wheels to enable fast and easy reconfiguration.

Second, we need to embrace the idea that skilled and neutral co-design facilitators and knowledge workers can dramatically accelerate the quality and quantity of outputs, especially in complex organisations and systems.

Think of how the human brain works. Each of us is limited to our knowledge, experiences and perspectives. However, if we bring together 60+ individuals – preferably representing a variety of cultures, disciplines, sectors and perspectives – and organise them to go through a well-designed series of modules in collaborative environments, it is possible to get the group of individuals to function like a vast neural network – a collective brain that can co-create, co-design and co-own outputs.  

Third, and most importantly, we can no longer afford to regard community life – whether in academy or corporation – as a zero-sum game. Rather, we need to be humble, generous and confident enough to set aside our vested interests and work together to find a better way.

We need to respect the evidence, embrace the risks and trust the collective knowledge, talents and wisdom of those around us to create something bolder, richer and grander than we can ever achieve if we continue to work alone or in silos.

Brad Furber

COO, Michael Crouch Innovation Centre

Read next: Dr Mark Elliott, founder of Collabforge, offers five steps organisations can follow to dramatically increase their chances of successful collaboration.

Spread the word: Help Australia become a collaborative nation! Share this piece on collaborative environments using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Digital Disruption Thought Leadership Series here.