Coming together is a beginning … -Henry Ford
The word “collaboration” is overused and has lost some of its power in the business world. I hear phrases daily such as, “collaboration is key, redouble the collaborative efforts, tell me about a time when you demonstrated collaboration.”
But what does it truly mean to collaborate? Unfortunately, the word has lost some of its weight but that doesn’t change the fact that the essence of collaboration is central to leading an organization that is scalable, sustainable, and flexible. Right now, perhaps more than ever, we need collaborative leaders.
What is Collaboration?
Alan Dayley, in his article Defining and Achieving True Collaboration, articulately dissects the differences between communication, coordination, cooperation, and collaboration. He writes:
Dictionary definition: the process by which messages or information is sent from one place or person to another
Communication is the transmission of information from one person or group to another person or group. Communication is key to any endeavor, of course. The receiver determines the success of the communication. And, good communication is two way, meaning the sender and receiver should take action to confirm that the information was understood.
Dictionary definition: the activity of organizing separate things so that they work together
Many times in doing work, the piece that I created needs to work well with the piece you created. The work of integrating these separate efforts is coordination. It may be that one part or the other does not make a useful result, so coordination of these pieces is required. The parts might be valuable on their own but are more valuable together.
Dictionary definition: to act or work together for a shared purpose, or to help willingly when asked
Cooperation is the act of helping someone else achieve his or her goal. And, probably sooner or later the same person will help achieve your goal. The plus here is that some teamwork is involved, though we might not be always on the same team.
Dictionary definition: to work together or with someone else for a special purpose
Two or more people work together for a single purpose. They work together, side by side, to accomplish the shared goal. Some elements of communication, coordination, and cooperation will exist as parts of a collaboration. These elements come and go naturally as the pair or team are focused on creation, not information.
Once the differences are established, Dayley writes about flow – a state that can only be achieved when true collaboration is happening …
Collaboration comes when the participants are using data to create something new, not just transmitting or sharing data. Communication, coordination, and cooperation happen in rapid succession, feeding the creative stream. The diversity of experience, skills, and knowledge is focused all at once on a single effort.
You’ve probably experienced collaboration. It was that time when everyone is was focused, ignoring the clock, emails, and everything else. When suddenly a result was created with relief and elation. When you and your collaborators looked back and said “What just happened? How did we do that?” and you weren’t able to describe how you got to the result.
Have you ever experienced the psychological state of flow? Collaboration is that but as a group, as a real team!
Three Collaboration Roadblocks to Watch Out For:
- Collaboration Gridlock: One of the reasons many people are sometimes hesitant to truly collaborate is because when people try to collaborate on everything, they can wind up in endless meetings, debating ideas, and struggling to find consensus.
- Friends Only Collaboration: Left to their own devices, people will often choose to collaborate with others they know well—which is sometimes deadly for innovation.
- No Collaboration at the Top: Many leaders at the top are not working in a collaborative environment therefore collaborative efforts in the middle are sabotaged and squashed by politics and positioning higher up in the organization. Eventually, people lose the desire to collaborate at all levels. HBR explored this idea recently in this article.
“According to the psychologist Carol Dweck, people are driven to do tasks by either performance or learning goals. When performance goals dominate an environment, people are motivated to show others that they have a valued attribute, such as intelligence or leadership. When learning goals dominate, they are motivated to develop the attribute. Performance goals, she finds, induce people to favor tasks that will make them look good over tasks that will help them learn. A shift toward learning goals will make managers more open to exploring opportunities to acquire knowledge from others.”
There is power, weight, and momentum in collaborative teams, departments, and businesses but organizations require collaborative leaders if these efforts are to last and effect change.
Four Behaviors of a Collaborative Leader
As I wrote about extensively in my articles about The Spider and the Starfish decentralizing knowledge is key to collaborative leadership. Collaborative leaders share knowledge across business areas and set unifying goals that reward cooperation and collective success.
A Firm Hand:
Collaborative leaders direct teams clearly. As opportunities come and go, these leaders will form and disband teams in a way that keeps the organization agile and current. These teams are fluid and not confined to silos.
A Promoter of Diversity:
Collaborative leaders understand the power of diverse thinking. Often a team of subject matter experts run the risk of being insular in their thinking, while a group of people varying in skills and knowledge will be more open to exploring a challenge from fresh angles. Innovation occurs when ideas collide and diverse groups of people are more adept at making connections from those collisions of thought.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point, uses the term “connector” to describe collaborative leaders that have many ties in various directions. He makes the distinction that it is not about the number of connections a leader has, but their ability to link other people to new ideas and resources – connecting people that might not otherwise “collide.”
I think we can all agree that organizations are facing a time of unprecedented change. Collaboration may create ambiguity and it may cost more. Collaboration may bring up opposition from new directions and make things feel less organized initially. Collaboration, however, may also grow new leaders, and stimulate new solutions to old challenges. Collaboration may distribute workloads more equitably, and it certainly demands creativity. Most importantly, collaboration lives in that space where humans are the most connected – where humans are coordinating, cooperating, and communicating. That connection, in and of itself, makes collaboration essential for our times.