The House of Collaboration

“Politeness is the poison of collaboration.” – Edwin Land

Is collaboration reducible to leadership? For some, this is a question with an obvious answer. For me, it is not the pursuit of the perfect answer, but rather the question itself that deserves some discussion. This is necessary for one major reason; there’s a pervasive belief that everything can be explained in elevator pitch mode. I disagree. After all, there is something about our capacity for language that has evolved; and not only so that we can write poetry. Ideas are sometimes best expressed when they are not pruned back to basic catch phrases. In fact, ideas are most capable of inspiring action when they are rich with detail. So, how relevant is the notion that perhaps some may simply be inclined to think that leadership is the principal driver of collaboration, and the rest is simple action?

Social Leadership Australia's 'collaboration diagram'

Social Leadership Australia’s ‘collaboration diagram’

Firstly, I do think that every collaboration strategist knows that leadership is vital for every strategy, so it goes without saying that collaboration must account for a strong leadership component. Aside from that though, the risk of oversimplifying things by focusing on leadership as the “it’ factor cannot be overstated.

I recently spoke to a prominent politician, who seems to prescribe to the idea that collaboration is simply about leadership. In her experience, a laissez-faire approach to collaboration seems implicit. She may be right. I am not convinced. My question is not about whether leadership matters, but does it make sense to ignore the fact that leadership is nowhere near enough to make collaboration work? I also wonder to what extent leadership can be a code for one’s reluctance to do the hard yards of analysis and preparation that goes into collaboration at the very start. Australian governments, not unlike others across the globe, have indicated that collaboration is necessary across sectors. The same is the case with business and community sectors. It is hard to imagine an area that would not yield better return on investment through collaboration. However, decades old and stagnant management practices seem to have become conventional wisdom; something a surprisingly small number of managers are willing to challenge. Some issues in relation to the adoption of new practice have been discussed by various bodies. An example I recommend is Social Leadership Australia’s own analysis.

Reflecting on my conversation with the politician, I realised that the instinctive reference to leadership is not only unique when it comes to collaboration. Many people of influence tend to evoke leadership as the answer for anything and everything. Digging deeper I start to wonder if in actual fact leadership has become safe ground for the complex and contested areas of enterprise functioning. It’s a bit along the lines of; when it doubt, focus on leadership.

Leadership: critical but not exclusive part of good collaboration

Leadership: critical but not exclusive part of good collaboration

But, are we not picking up on the cues around us? Customers, consumers and stakeholders alike are now assuming that enterprises listen to them. Some respond; some try to. Overall, the market has been disrupted enough so that enterprises who lean towards old tools really stand no realistic chance of being relevant. The ability to solve problems, which is really what sits behind every resilient enterprise, is directly linked to its being disciplined in the way it understands and adopts effective strategies. This is far from indicating that collaboration is a “must do every time” strategy. However, in order to be able to demonstrate authentic engagement with a customer base and stakeholders, collaboration is a ‘must understand’ strategy. After all, it is poor form to defer all capacities to the leadership corner. Owning up to our role in any enterprise means meeting leadership half-way. If collaboration is to emerge as a potential asset; then the sense of ownership needs to be based on a deeper understanding of what collaboration is, and what leadership is not.


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