Collaboration: overrated or misunderstood?


I’m hearing a lot – and I mean A LOT – at the moment about ‘collaboration’ from different parties. The most vociferous are those disgruntled folk who would really much prefer it if all the different suppliers, partners, contractors, stakeholders, call-them-what-you-wills that they deal with …could just please get on with it. Together. And nicely.

Why they can’t they just collaborate?’

‘What’s wrong with them? Why all the turf wars?’

‘I gave them the freedom to work together, so why can’t they do it?

‘Why can’t they just get along with each other?’

These speech snippets are typical – and worth further analysis. Which word crops up most frequently? And which group in the population uses that word frequently? And if you use that word incessantly – go on, try it – how old do you sound?

Still not getting it? Allow me to give you a clue: ‘But why can’t I stay up late Mum/Dad, why? Why? Why?’

I think that those with collaboration at the top of their wish-list are missing a point. For true collaboration to be achieved, several essentials need to be present:

  • Clear goals that everyone has signed up to
  • Honesty from each party about what’s important for them
  • Transparent processes and ways of working that are agreed and adhered to
  • Trust between all parties
  • Understanding of everyone’s strengths
  • Respect for each other’s differences

Now this all sounds very grown-up. And there’s the rub: to achieve true collaboration takes time, lots of it, for such maturity to be reached. An assembly of different experts, with different specialisms, aims and ways of operating simply won’t work collaboratively from the get-go.

Instead, they’re more likely to behave like a bunch of poorly supervised kids on the first day at school. Tantrums, tears and chaos. Someone needs to take charge and explain how it’s going to be. What’s needed is direction and expectation setting, which is a long way from collaboration, but vital if this assembly of people is going to stand a chance of getting there.

Only when the goals, everyone’s roles and the ground rules are clear and agreed upon can the different stakeholders make progress. Even then, progress will falter as rules are tested and boundaries crossed – how will transgressors be dealt with?

It’s only as the different parties mature together, take on more responsibility and are prepared to be held accountable that the person/people who had to direct initially can step back and allow true collaboration to emerge. The process is more time-consuming at each stage and takes longer overall.

Is it worth it? Honestly, I don’t think complete collaboration is desirable or achievable in some situations – a really tight deadline, a crisis (layoffs or, ahem, the discovery of corrupt practice for example) or an emergency. That’s when no-nonsense direction is needed. Other situations may require some parties to graciously accommodate the requests made of them, if only temporarily. Yet others may require us to simply bow out of a game we’re no longer ready or able to play. Collaboration is what’s needed when a great deal is at stake for all concerned, and both trust and time can be brought to bear to allow all parties to give of their best.


You may find this blog post useful: ‘What’s your approach to conflict?’  

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