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.
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.
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