But Does Collaboration Really Work?

Does collaboration really work? That seems to be the question. The simple answer is: it depends. Not every endeavor or project calls for collaboration, just like in a team-based organization, not every project requires a team. Maybe we should ask a bigger question. Maybe we should ask if it is worth it to spend the effort needed to move to a collaborative culture.

I started my research into collaborative organizational cultures about five years ago. There was little written about it. Of course, there were some great books such as those by Morton Hansen, Amy Edmondson, and Ron Ricci. But mostly collaboration was talked about in books focusing on teams. Few focused on collaboration itself. Since then, in a relatively short period, collaboration has become more prominent in the literature to the point that it is a new buzzword.

It seems that whenever a “new “paradigm gains momentum, the critics raise their voices, which to me says, it is noteworthy. It has made it to the big time. Perhaps it is the threat of change, real or unreal, that causes worry or the need to examine the faults or dangers of what may threaten the status quo. Personally, I am glad a conversation has begun. The very debate is a positive. It helps all of us learn of potential pitfalls and dive more deeply into the complexity of collaboration. I applaud the open discussion

Some of the concerns I have heard expressed are:

  • Involving others in collective thinking may actually cloud clear thinking.
  • Gathering information and different perspectives may actually inhibit innovation. Having the right people with the right skills work on a project can allow more experimentation and speed up the process.
  • Collaboration can promote laziness because success is not any individual’s direct responsibility. People can let others take the responsibility.
  • Collaboration can take a lot of time that could be used in other efforts. It may actually undermine performance and true creativity.

Actually, this all may be true. I agree that collaboration, if seen as "everyone must be involved in every project or decision," is hurtful to organizational and individual success. A few people working together on critical issues that have the skills needed and ability to work quickly is far more effective. Therefore, collaboration involving lots of idea generation from multiple sources does not work for many projects.

This last argument, although true, misses the point. Collaboration is not a blanket approach to every issue an organization faces. Collaboration is effective when the cost of not collaborating is greater than the costs of lost opportunities. Collaboration as I see it is a way of being. It is part of the DNA of the organization, deeply embedded in the culture and fueled by the passion and expertise of all its members. It enables the organization to utilize the resources of all its members. When all members are focused on the good of the organization and its goals, rather than focusing on individual or departmental agendas, the power of the organization is unleashed. Collaboration is not a "nice to have" set of soft values, but a strategic way of operation which can advantageously negotiate the complex business environment we live in.

Let's revisit the basic tenets of collaboration:

  • Utilize differences
  • Nurture safety and trust
  • Involve others in creating a clear purpose, values and goals
  • Talk openly
  • Empower yourself and others
  • Expand organizational knowledge
  • Develop all employees to be self leaders

Even though I am agreeing with those who say involving everyone and brainstorming on critical issues can be a waste of valuable time, can cloud the thinking and can be overwhelming, I would like  to share a story that happened in my company where this was not the case.

In 2009, the recession was in full swing. Ours is a training solutions company and we were feeling the pinch. In fact, we were concerned that jobs must be cut; clients were not investing in their people like they had previously.  We were very concerned.
The leadership team had done their best to generate solutions to our situation. They were at a loss. The owners had insisted that no jobs would be lost. They needed to find other ways to make it through. So they did something unheard of, they called an all-company meeting bringing in employees from all corners of the globe. They explained the company’s situation and that they needed everyone’s best thinking on how to save costs and increase revenue.

People were placed in groups of maximum organizational diversity. For example, HR was paired with facilities. The charge was to brainstorm ideas. Every idea was to be accepted –no judgment. Then they were asked to argue the ideas and each table come up with their best ideas. The only caveat was No Jobs Lost. The noise level rose when they got to this part. At the end of the day, each table turned in their best ideas.

The leadership used over 55% of the ideas and no jobs were lost.

The power of that experience left people with the feeling of importance, that they were valued and had something to contribute. It created raving fans for the organization and renewed passion for the work of the organization. It was a powerful and moving experience for all.

Collaboration proved out, even on a large scale.