The Limits of Collaboration?

Collaboration is not a paneaca, a silver bullet to all good things. There is a time and place for collaborating – for working with others, for gathering and exploring ideas, for joint work, for seeking common ground – but there is equally a time for a leader to make a clear decision. As a king might say to one of his trusted officials – “You have given me your input; now I need your obedience.”

I’ve been thinking about a large organization over the past few days. A number of years ago, the senior leaders decided to make a big push into “collaboration,” and so the traditional command-and-control culture was replaced by what they called a collaborative one. What this meant was that decision making rights were pushed down from the senior leaders to a new collection of internal boards, each made up of people from across the different functions. The idea – the grand idea even – was to create a new style organization that dispensed with the challenges of command-and-control and embraced collaboration as the new way forward.

All has not worked out as it was supposed to be – at least, not yet anyway.

1. Decision making is torturously slow. “Collaboration” has been equated with “complete consensus,” so the only decision made out of the internal boards is “to have another meeting.”

2. Market place execution has suffered, with new products and services failing to go from concept to market. Grand product ideas remain just ideas.

3. Financial indicators have gone backwards, meaning that collaboration has had a negative impact for stockholders.

4. Employees put on a bold face about the new approach when dealing with external people, but over a quiet discussion, they say all is not right.

What do we learn from this? What do we need to avoid in seeking the (very real) benefits of collaboration at work? From the above case, we must remember that collaboration is not the end goal – it’s merely a means to winning in the market. If the pursuit of winning in the market is hampered by our “collaboration,” we need to go back and see whether “collaboration” is really happening or not. Are people collaborating towards a great outcome, or are they running in circles and mired in the swamp of uncertainty?

And finally, collaboration means that people have something to collaborate towards – and if the goal posts are undefined, if the rallying point is unclear, then get a leader in to listen, understand, and make a clear decision. Surely for senior leaders, this is the whole point of governing collaboration.

3 thoughts on “The Limits of Collaboration?

  1. Agree with you there, Michael. Seems to me the organization in question did not go through the requisite strategy and discovery process to “become collaborative” but rather, as indicated in your #1, broke down into committees. The only benefit of this was to take the decision making pain and responsibility away from leadership!
    Also enjoy your reference at the end to governance. Collaboration (or ECM, or messaging, or innovation…I could go on…) is in and of itself useless without both “rules of the road” and some kind of oversight.
    Fascinating subject, glad you brought it up!

  2. Succinct argument, and well made. In particular, question of consensus is an interesting one: is unanimous agreement ultimately achievable/realistic or even desirable, given that having disagreement/dissent in a system is no bad thing, providing it is a creative tension rather than setting the conditions for a rupture/breakdown.
    Re your last point about an end point, Charles Leadbeater talks about successful collaborative systems having a “simple animating goal”, a construct I have found useful when thinking about setting the conditions for collaboration. Interestingly, to go back to the question of consensus, Leadbeater would agree with you that successful collaboration is rarely the product of purely consensus-based decision making.

  3. Thanks Rob and Steve – I appreciate your commentary.
    @Rob – yes, the decision making pain was taken away from leadership, but it appears that the rights / responsibilities to do so was less clear.
    @Steve – thanks for your comments on consensus, and the link to Charles. Much appreciated.

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