Thursday, June 7, 2012

Eight Dangers Of Collaboration

Most of what is written about collaboration is positive. Even hip. Collaboration is championed enthusiastically by the Enterprise 2.0 experts, as well as leading thinkers like Don Tapscott, as the crucial approach for the 21st century. Collaboration creates once-elusive "buy-in or "empowerment," improves problem solving, increases creativity, is key to innovation at companies like Lego, Pixar, and Intuit. It slashes costs and improves productivity.

So why is collaboration as rare as it is?

The short answer is that collaboration is dangerous. Inherently, collaboration says something is happening outside of one's immediate control. This by itself seems threatening to some, but there are several specific reasons why it appears dangerous:

  1. Not knowing the answer. The fundamental premise of collaboration is that you can use it to solve complex problems that are beyond the function of one domain or expertise. That means that each participant needs to be comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity. Most people have built their careers — perhaps even their identity — on being the expert. They don't like feeling ignorant.
  2. Unclear or uncomfortable roles. Role and responsibilities in the collaboration space tend not to be hierarchical; they are often fluid, changing from phase to phase of the work. This can be especially hard for senior executives, because it may mean taking off their mantle of being the "chief of answers" and becoming part of the "tribe of doing things."
  3. Too much talking, not enough doing. Collaboration means a shift from thinking big ideas alone, and more into the real-time mess of problem solving with others. Shifting work from "I tell, they do" to a "We think together" approach will appear at first to be all about talking. Like we've moved to the land of yack, yack, yack. But thinking together closes a gap. By thinking together, people can then act without checking back in because they were there when the decision got made. They've already had the debates about all the tradeoffs that actually make something work. But that means organizations spend more time in the messy and time-consuming up-front process of designing solutions that'll work.
  4. Information (over)sharing. For collaboration to work, information is rarely left in any silo but is shared and often combined in unexpected ways to reframe problems. For some people, this can mean information overload. For others, who withhold information in order to retain power, the free flow of information is threatening.
  5. Fear of fighting. Collaborating means dealing with conflicting priorities. "Turf" isn't always clear. If you avoid conflict, or don't know how to fight effectively, nothing will happen. Knowing how to debate the tradeoffs between many viable options means knowing how to argue with each other about the business in more open and visible ways. (I've already written about Steve Jobs doing this with his team.) Not doing it well, or doing it wrong — or simply losing? Very risky. Very dangerous.
  6. More work. Often, collaboration happens on top of other work. Participants are already plenty busy with their "day job" and the new project may be especially stressful because of this. Until the problems that any collaboration project is aimed to fix gets solved, a collaboration project can often be overwhelming. Most people describe collaboration in what I call a nice-nice way: If we would just collaborate, then we would do better! But as we've already described, collaboration is about the friction of ideas and the forging of new ways of working. That is not easy, or even nice. And it makes new demands on all of us. It means leaders must do more than just tell people what to do. It also means people within the organization have to do more than say, "Hey, that thing is broken" and then delicately walk away.
  7. More hugs than decisions. The fear is that if we ask for opinions we must listen to all of them, and that we'll create watered down "solutions" by committee. In that way, collaboration is often used synonymously with teamwork or democratic exchange. It shouldn't be. The goal isn't about feeling good; it is about business results. If people have been heard, have participated in creating solutions and then know why the business picks one option over another, than we can all require what Barbara Kellerman appropriately called followership. Leaders still need to make tough calls and direct the focus. Without both Leadership with the capital L and Followership with a capital F, all we get is the equivalent of a group hug and not the results the organization needs.
  8. It's hard to know who to praise and who to blame. Collaborative projects are judged on the outcome, more than the individual efforts than when into them (which are hard to even measure). Leaders have less visibility into who did what. If things go right, they worry about rewarding the wrong people. If things go wrong, they complain about no longer having a single "throat to choke."

Collaborative work is not right for every organization, or in every case. Research shows it works best for organizations that need to solve problems across different parts of the business, where cross-pollination of ideas improves the output, where speed to market is crucial, and where getting people to co-own the solution will create more velocity in the execution of the work.

According to recent research, collaboration has been proven to have a strong corollary to innovation; .81, according to research commissioned by Google.) The empirical evidence tied to collaborative work and results have also been captured through extensive research.

In most cases, there are ways to manage each of these dangers with a specific "how" that will allow people to step into the unknown, create new solutions, and get to the other side of a problem. (That's the specifics described in my first book, The New How.)

But, let's recognize, we can't manage collaboration well until we acknowledge that it's fundamentally dangerous.

Nilofer Merchant ( is a corporate director and a speaker on igniting cultures of innovation. Read her book The New How at your peril, for it will change the way you look up and down your organization's hierarchy.

Thanks to Nilofer Merchant / Blogs HBR / Harvard Business School Publishing


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