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Why collaboration is like ice cream

Oct 09, 2018

What’s your gut reaction to the word “collaboration”?

For many, the idea of collaboration is loaded with positive promise. The opportunity to make great things happen by working with others. Happy times. 🎉

For some, the word collaboration evokes a far more jaded response – with memories of being drawn into way too many meetings, workshops and post-it note sessions. Or being bombarded by colleagues wanting (nay, expecting!) to be part of everything you are doing. Initiatives and decisions stalling because of an unhealthy desire for consensus on everything. Posters and branded coffee mugs championing the ideal of collaboration, but without any clear guidance on what that actually looks like in practice.

It’s surprisingly easy to fall into the trap of too much collaboration. In a recent video*, I likened collaboration to ice-cream: hard to resist, but important to exercise self-restraint, lest you slip into a binge-then-blowout cycle with little to show for it other than a massive ice-cream/collaboration headache!

In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article titled “Collaboration Overload”, Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant shared their research on this phenomenon, highlighting the costs of under-managed collaboration. One of their findings was that the top collaborators in organisations often become bottlenecks, as well as becoming less effective at doing their own work and - ultimately – burned out and disengaged. Oops. 😬

I'd hate to think that this negative experience of collaboration might trigger a swing of the pendulum back in the opposite direction – where people start to avoid it like the plague. I was recently speaking with a senior leader, who told me that she encourages her team to avoid getting involved in other teams' projects and cross-business initiatives, as she feels they're a poor use of time. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great to be choosy. But I have an image in my mind of her team battening down the hatches to protect themselves against barbarian invasion - having slipped into a mindset of 'everyone’s out to waste our time'!

A balanced diet…

To drive a culture of healthy collaboration, it’s essential for teams to develop their “collaboration intelligence” — a shared language and some useful tools to help manage collaboration. Collaboration isn’t just a feel-good vibe – it’s a decision to invest time, energy and resources into something on the assumption that the outcome will probably be better than if you’d gone it alone. Teams need to be good at making decisions about when to collaborate – and when to say “no”.

I encourage teams to view each and every proposed collaboration through the following 'window' of 4 simple questions – whether it’s deciding who to include in a meeting or workshop, or scoping out a collaborative project:

Here's how these 4 questions might play out…

  • WHY – Why would we collaborate? What’s the problem we’re trying to solve or the value we’re seeking to create – and why is collaborating better than going it alone?

  • WHAT – If the collaboration is successful, what do we imagine we
    will be able to create or achieve? What will a valuable outcome look like?

  • WHO – Who needs to be involved, and why? What does each person bring to the table? What’s each person’s role in decision-making? Who doesn’t need to be involved, even though our default assumptions might be telling us otherwise. 

  • HOW – How will we go about collaborating? What processes do we need to put in place? What timeframes? What tools to capture value? What help will we need? How will we resolve differences? How will we share the value we create?

If collaboration is to work, it must come with a clear payoff. Equipping your team with an understanding of a simple framework such as this goes a long way to filtering out inefficient collaboration and avoiding the binge-to-blowout cycle.
* I regularly publish videos like these on LinkedIn and YouTube. Speaking of which, the astute reader may note that it's been a while since my last blog post. Where have I been? Well, the easy answer to that is "busy". But aren't we all? My reflections on this led me to make this video about it back in August... another one you might like to check out if it didn't appear in your LinkedIn feed.


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