Can Collaboration Prevail?

The abilities to both compete and collaborate are clearly keys to success in today’s world.  Yet it seems our education and corporate systems continue to be designed to foster more competition than collaboration.

One example in our schools of an attempt to foster collaborative behavior is assigning a group project.  Some teachers do a better job than others to support the group in truly collaborating and teach students how to work together and hold each other accountable for contributing.  But more often than not the focus is on the grade each individual takes away, not the way the group worked together or didn’t and what can be learned from the process.

If you participate in sports or academic competition you have the opportunity to learn about teamwork, but there are a lot of kids who never have that inclination or opportunity.  Also, in the absence of a strong coach, the more talented participants can often get away with being a poor team player in service of winning the game.  Great collaboration isn’t always essential to winning the game.  And let’s face it, where you go once you graduate is ultimately dependent on your individual achievement.

We carry that context, intentionally or not, into the workplace.

Being part of the same company or organization does not automatically create an experience of being on the same team.  In corporations multidisciplinary and cross functional teams are often formed with the best of intentions and highest of hopes.  Yet the culture, fueled by the organizational structure and reward system, significantly impacts just how effective those teams are at collaborating, and can easily become the lid on the potential of the team.  In a hierarchical organization structure with an individually driven reward system (or a reward system that unwittingly pits one part of an organization against another), effective collaboration can be very difficult to achieve.

There also seems to be a pervasive yet unexamined belief in organizations that a team of talented and intelligent individuals will naturally form an intelligent and talented team.  Yet any group as a whole will never deliver anything greater than the sum of the individual contributions, and will likely deliver even less, unless there are two key ingredients – a shared commitment to a clear and meaningful goal and leadership.

On the other hand there are those who are lucky enough to experience the extraordinary intrinsic rewards of being part of a team, whether they experience it in school or at work.  Ultimately the drive for collaboration is fueled by a deep desire to be a part of something larger and more significant than ourselves.  While winning feels great, I believe that desire for many people is a desire for much more than just winning.

There will always be people who just want to belong and will fight hard for the status quo so they can keep on belonging.  There will always be those who are primarily motivated by winning and/or individual achievement.  The human systems we have designed will likely continue to reward these values for some time to come.  Yet there is a groundswell of people who are focusing on contributing the best of what they have to offer and who want to create extraordinary value with others.  That is what gives me hope that we can and will continue to forge ahead to find new and better ways to collaborate to do extraordinary things.

Can collaborative behavior prevail?  Not only do I think it can, I believe it will be the hallmark of successful organizations of the future.

Perhaps a more pressing question at hand today is this:  How can we achieve greater levels of collaboration in a system in which extrinsic rewards and individual achievement continue to be the focus?

What do you think?


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