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When NOT to Collaborate

September 27, 2016 3:24 pm

Most of us have worked together to tackle a complex problem or address interdependencies that individual contribution alone couldn’t have solved. It can be messy but also immensely rewarding for those involved. While volumes have been written on the virtues of collaboration, we’ve started to notice client organizations that default to collaboration, as if collaboration is an end in itself. Far too often, before an issue or opportunity is well defined, we hear something like, “let’s pull some UX team members together along with Development and Marketing to get the ball rolling.” Like any good facilitator, we often ask a few questions at this point, such as:

  • What ball, rolling in which direction? What outcomes are we talking about?
  • Which team members have the bandwidth and appropriate competencies?
  • If they weren’t kicking this particular ball, what else might they be doing?

Consider the Other C’s: Cooperation or Coordination
While breaking down siloes and opening up discussions can produce spectacular results, there are alternatives that can cost less and in some cases can produce more – namely, cooperation or coordination. Here are some signs that collaboration is not the best fit for a specific task, decision, or project.

1. Allocating Low Empowerment
Don’t ask staff to open up and work together on a task or decision if it’s ultimately – or already – being made by someone else. Conducting ‘Faux-laboration’ to lend an air of openness can destroy your chances of buy-in down the road when you actually need team members to divert resources to working together. If what you are really looking for involves recommendations or feedback, tell it like it is. And consider whether it is necessary for the group to hear each other’s input or if it is enough for invited contributors to respond to your request individually.

2. The Collaboration Premium
In an article on internal collaboration, Harvard Business Review outlined the concept of a Collaboration Premium, which is the difference between the projected return on collaboration and two overlooked factors: ‘opportunity cost’ and ‘collaboration cost’. You don’t need an MBA or accounting degree to use this formula, it’s just a reminder that:

  • when staff are collaborating they aren’t doing other, potentially more value-added work
  • collaboration itself almost always costs additional resources including meeting more often, coordinating work, gaining consensus on outcomes, managing multiple personalities, etc.

Collaboration Killers
Okay, so you’ve decided the ROI on collaborating on a specific project or decision is worth it. Great. Now you still need to ensure your team is set up for successful collaboration. For a start, make sure you’ve considered these top three collaboration killers:

  • Lack of trust. There is no ‘creative abrasion’ if there’s no trust. Communication, commitment and the assumption of goodwill are imperative if friction is to be productive instead of a barrier to completion. Deal with any resistance or bad feelings up front so they don’t end up sabotaging you down the road!
  • Lack of vision. The power of collaboration – to realize more together than we can individually – can’t be unleashed unless there’s a very strong common goal. If there’s no aspiration, personal goals will get in the way.
  • Lack of facilitative leadership. Collaboration starts at the top. If your leadership style is opaque or command-and-control, your team will take its cues from you and withhold information, establish a hierarchy, fight to be right, etc.

We’d love to hear about your most successful collaboration (industry, length of collaboration, lessons learned). Drop us a line at [email protected]

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