Culture & Competency

Three Pre-Conditions for Successful Collaboration

The appendix to Collaboration Roadmap explores the implications of collaboration being a means to an end, rather than an end point itself. It serves a role as one of several potential strategies for reaching towards the higher goals and objectives of a joint operation, and indeed, is not always the best or most appropriate strategy to embrace. One section of the appendix posits that there are three pre-conditions for collaboration: human practices, agreed processes, and a greater potential benefit via collaboration than working alone. If any one of these pre-conditions are missing, then invariably the collaboration fails. To wit:

  • When the human practices of working together are lacking, people irritate each other and can’t get beyond their personal conflicts to settle into a productive way of working together.
  • When there is no agreement about the processes for working together, the work suffers at the hand of methodological arguments.
  • When potential is lacking, there’s no driving reason to collaborate in the first place. It’s merely a nice sounding idea, rather than anything of substance.

Which can all be neatly summarised in a flow diagram as above.

Fast Company recently ran an article called How to Collaborate Better By Collaborating Less, by Carlos Valdes-Dapena. It’s a good read, although I’m inclined to re-write the title as “How to Collaborate Better By Interacting Less,” which would be more true to the points Carlos focuses on. Collaboration is not solely interaction (communication), and interaction (communication) is only one part of productive collaboration.

Instead of quoting the whole thing, which I’m tempted to do, here’s the key ideas and my notes:

“Hypercollaboration” is the latest iteration of team-building, Slack-laden workplaces …. It means more and bigger teams. These hypercollaborative efforts tend to run on digital platforms—whether it be Slack messages, Google calendars, or Trello Boards. But perhaps the answer to the burnout of all the different project management tools and team message boards isn’t to combine them all. You see, burnout doesn’t come from the inability to click around to access another app. Burnout occurs when an employee is overwhelmed by work demands. The movement toward connectivity and collaboration means more and more people are spending more time in meetings and answering messages than doing the actual work.

Peter Drucker made a similar statement: you can meet or you can work, but you can’t do both at the same time. The point above is better understood if the “collaboration” is replaced by “communication” or “interaction.” More of the latter does not necessarily mean better of the former, for the former is about more than just the latter.

Collaboration is just one way that work gets done. Teamwork is not a panacea. What’s more, my research showed it’s expensive, more time-consuming, and more prone to creating conflict than having an individual do the work. So choose collaboration carefully, hyper or not.

Indeed. See Collaboration Has Significant Downsides.

Any collection of individuals who share work can always improve their collaboration, and apps such as Slack or Trello do an excellent job at keeping teams on task. However, that doesn’t mean they need to collaborate more frequently or on more things and have more “anytime, anywhere” access to each other’s projects.

If we take “improve their collaboration” as the operative phrase, then indeed, frequency can be the enemy. Neither frequency of interaction (I changed Carlos’s word) nor frequency of access are necessary predicates. Improving collaboration flows from extreme clarity on who, what, when, where, how and why. Interaction (a more precise word that “collaborate” in this context) introduces friction into work processes, and while some friction is necessary, too much grinds work processes to a halt.

With fewer (but higher-quality) collaborative projects, the team needed fewer meetings. Fewer meetings meant less time developing agendas and building presentations and fewer invitations clogging already packed in-boxes. The best part? The meetings that they did have felt essential and relevant to everyone attending them, meaning they did better work.

The M&M’s retail leadership team became better collaborators by collaborating less. Less collaboration cleared the calendar and mental space that allowed them to dig deeper for higher-quality work. The impact wasn’t only in dollars (though the business was more profitable than it had been in years.) Their engagement scores went up because employees were doing more meaningful collective work.

Collaboration is one type of designing work, but not the only type. And as is true with every type of work design, there are implications thrown off – or measures that describe how that work design is functioning for the people inside the work process. Carlos points to several important descriptors – efficacy, focus, quality, employee engagement, and the quotient of meaningful work. Getting the balance right between different work designs is essential.

Categories: Culture & Competency

3 replies »