Collaboration: Silver Bullet or Unicorn?

I once arrived in an organization just as it commenced a massive restructure involving mergers and spin-offs.  Work that to date had been done by two organizations would now be done by four.  Collaboration would be the key to making this work.   As time went on, “collaboration” became the answer to virtually everything.  Overlapping mandates?  Collaborate better.  Policy mismatches?  Collaborate and find a way forward.  Misalignment of budgets with tasks?  Collaborate and work it out.

The challenges of collaborating in a stress-filled environment have been noted elsewhere.  So, organizational leader, before you call for more “collaboration”, consider the following:

  • What do you mean?  “Collaboration” is one of those notoriously slippery words that can mean anything and nothing.  Even if you know what you mean, does your team have the same understanding?
  • What is success?  “Collaborative” is sometimes used as a synonym for “consensus”.  When you tell your team to “collaborate” with another group, are you asking them to achieve complete consensus?  Ask yourself this: “Am I expecting ‘collaboration’ to make problems go away so I don’t have to deal with them at my level?”
  • What is the cost?  Working collaboratively can be very beneficial, but it takes a lot of effort.  Studies are showing that the burden of collaboration is borne disproportionately by your top performers; taking time and effort from their other critical tasks.  Collaboration can be a recipe for their burn-out if it is not used judiciously.
  • Am I putting my team into a no-win situation?  I once told my team that we needed to have a “collaborative solution” (to a complex problem involving many stakeholders from multiple organizations) within two weeks.  Fortunately, a couple of my seasoned direct reports took me aside afterwards and gently opened my eyes to the impossibility of what I was asking for.

The phrase “chasing unicorns” is sometimes used to describe an individual or organizational quest for the impossible.  If you look to collaboration as a way to produce better results and you are prepared to pay the price, then it can truly be a powerful tool, a “silver bullet” if you will.  If you are looking to collaboration as a mysterious and undefined “thing” that will somehow make problems go away, then you may be chasing a unicorn.  How will you know the difference?  Let’s talk about it.