The ‘D’ word and collaboration

I recently spoke to a colleague who noted that collaboration is all the rage now.  I suppose I never thought of collaboration as being űber cool, but I got the sentiment of the observation.  Often, many things in business, government and life in general become popular at some point.  Nothing new there.  However, at times, the real issue can be the fact that things may gain a lot of notice for complex reasons.  As a collaboration practitioner, I am encouraged by the fact that, as collaboration becomes a more familiar concept, the more chances there are that it can actually be applied in a way that explores its full potential. What potential it may reach will be a collective, market-driven result.  If it was up to me I would argue (and here I repeat myself) that, just like we have many others, as a nation we need to have a collaboration strategy.  Innovation and business growth are placed highly; it only makes sense that we give collaboration the same regard.

As recently published in ‘ROADMENDER Recommends’, we can see that legislation and the rule of law needs to account for the possibility of commercial collaboration in a way that allows companies (and enterprises of all kinds) to develop their full collaborative capacities. Let’s help chief collaboration officers across the nation do more by giving clarity to how collaboration can work best.

A simple thing should be kept in mind; collaboration works but it can also cause disappointment, and the dreaded ‘D’ word is often left unexamined when we plan for collaboration.  I find that I need to pay special attention when developing collaboration strategies for my clients to ensure that sufficient time is dedicated to considering potential disappointments, which could turn into issues and risks and ultimately scare people away.  And whilst I think collaboration has a very positive and promising resonance, initial enthusiasm is not sufficient for serious collaboration to produce the desired outcomes unless we are brutally honest with both ourselves and our collaborating partners. A good and solid start to framing the base for collaboration can be summed up in the words of the great Prof Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

All great inventions emerge from a long sequence of small sparks; the first idea often isn’t all that good, but thanks to collaboration it later sparks another idea, or its reinterpretation in an unexpected way. Collaboration brings small sparks together to generate breakthrough innovations.”

Grasping the above can help avoid some common collaboration disappointments.

  1. An expectation of quick wins (the pay-off matrix): collaboration is a great strategy for achieving more when we aggregate our resources and align company culture with partners. However, it is best to focus on a balanced approach where collaboration is not utilised only to get a quick win which requires little investment and high gains.  The true capacity for collaboration to produce lasting outcomes and impacts should be the long term strategy.
  2. False expectations from the partnering agency: this is easier said than done but also the most common mistake caused by the initial excitement that potential collaboration can induce. Casting a critical eye over the collaboration approach is a must-do, but it has to be balanced in a way that partners do not lose hope because issues and challenges are raised for discussion.
  3. Assumption of low investment: collaboration naturally works best as resource aggregator and inter-organisational link but that does not make it a low investment game. In fact it is of critical importance that people identify what investment is being made by all parties and a proper agreement of the value of those resources are agreed upon.  While this process can help in managing the collaboration, it also helps in the assessment of the impacts at a later date.  It also is a type of reality check to ensure that partners do not feel disappointed if (as often is the case) investments are not of equal value.
  4. Assuming that collaboration is a ‘low risk’ strategy:  collaboration projects can sometimes implicitly lead us to believe that things will work out as planned.  Risk evaluation in the collaboration context is notoriously difficult for a number of reasons, including the fact that collaboration is not always legislatively clear.  Before any risk associated with collaboration can be assessed and a treatment plan developed, it is fundamentally necessary for partners to define the form of collaboration.  Having said that, risk management should not lead partners away from entrepreneurial and innovative approaches to collaboration.

Whichever collaboration method we choose, we need to approach it as a business project that does not always come with ready answers.  Acknowledging that disappointment is possible should not be a deterrent but an incentive to learn more about collaboration and practice it with more vigour.

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