How do you know if collaboration is working?

Sometimes collaboration feels right despite the lack of evidence at hand.  At other times, the data available suggests a great story of collaboration but the satisfaction, outcome and impacts we aim for are muted.  In either case, it is possible to fall into drawing fast conclusions and even faster decisions.

Fast decisions may lead many to give up on collaboration or even worse, pretend it never was going to work anyway.  So, how can you tell if collaboration is working well? What are the cues that can be detected on time and acted on smartly? One of our favourite old time ‘friends’ is the tool we call KPIs.  But, does collaboration work well purely because we have KPIs.  Yes and no.  KPIs are necessary, but also can be a puzzle when you are attempting to build a collaboration culture.  Collaboration is far from being a discipline that has been tried and tested to the extent that other parts of business practices are – for the time being.  However, with the increasing regard of collaboration as a business driver, there is no doubt that it too will become easier with time.

'conventional wisdom' guides a lot of business strategy

‘conventional wisdom’ guides a lot of business strategy

A very common scenario with many organisations when it comes to deploying collaboration is an attitude where failure at the first or second attempt tends to discourage management from persevering.  In fact collaboration as a disruptive force is very likely to divide management and in most cases be a strong motivation to return to the status quo, or to put is more precisely; to ‘what we know best’.  That is a natural reaction. But it should not necessarily be a strategic reaction! In my experience, I find that collaboration should not be embarked upon as a result of drivers we do not fully understand.  I know that in some sectors, NGOs, Not-for-profits, some sections of government and in some limited areas of the private sector, collaboration has started to be primarily a way of surviving funding cuts or income losses.  That is a legitimate driver and can in fact be sufficient to build a collaborative instinct in any enterprise.  Having said that, in this case a large chunk of understanding what collaboration could be is missing.

Firstly, collaboration as a ‘measure’ to be undertaken to combat financial constraints is not going to produce change that organisations need in order to think more competitively.  Collaboration is emerging as a way of operating, regardless of what the external circumstances may be from one financial year to the next.  I am talking about a shift in value creation that in itself fosters collaboration as a value which translates into the goods and services we produce or consume.  Services and products that are produced without collaboration as an ingredient are handicapped stories which increasingly fail to impress the market.  After all, a century of marketing expertise tells us that humans do not buy things just for the utility.

Collaboration is akin to a system of values that transcend any one enterprise as such.  It is not a new business fad, trend, strategy, tool etc.  It is sociological shift that is way more influential than one organisation can resist or ignore – not for long anyway. It is when we take those factors into account that a possible answer to the question I posed at the start becomes clear.  Collaboration is first and foremost a culture, which becomes explicit in the way we operate.  As with any aspect of culture, we know that some things are easy to detect and some take time to be measured.  This is where intuition, imagination and creativity play a larger role.  My first advice to people who want to know if collaboration is working is to test their intuition, without ignoring the available data.  As a rule of thumb, it is always good to ask ourselves the following question at regular intervals during the collaboration: Would I do this again with the same partner/s after this project is over?  Aligning your instincts and thinking before any action takes place can be very useful guide.  Adding KPIs further makes the collaboration a mature process as well.


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