Let’s face it; if you play with fire you may well get burnt. Collaboration is a little bit like fire, but like the camp fire; we really do love it. Nevertheless, there is an inevitable (and directly proportionate to one’s experience) time when things will not go the desired way. Far from this being a hint to quit the collaboration and treat it just as an experiment, we must learn and move on to the next project better prepared.
These days I find that there are two broad groups of organisations that seek advice on collaboration; the ones that have tried it once, got disappointed and then decided to stay clear from it for as long as they could (basically burying their business heads in the sand), and those who have never executed any serious collaboration but are now fast reacting to this strong business driver. What both groups tend to have in common is suspicion, which is often rationalised by remarks such as; ‘how hard can it be?’, or ‘we’ve tried it and it doesn’t work’. I tend to ask people, with an adjustable degree of ‘tongue in cheek’, did they ever consider collaboration to be a complex discipline which may not bear fruit after only one try? In fact in the years of practicing and learning about collaboration, I find, thankfully, that the chances of success are directly related to the amount of dedication, skill and sometimes business grit applied. In fact in this post GFC period it is exactly those attributes, combined with innovative entrepreneurialism and what I call auteur leadership that can convert collaboration into a competitive edge and achieve the outcomes an enterprise desires.
Generally speaking there is no ‘one size fits all’ type of advice on how to handle collaboration that has not reached a set goal. Obviously, the root causes of failure can invariably be linked to a weak strategy and failing to identify a clear goal, weaknesses in practice and culture that one partner may have, an unclear governance model, poor risk management, and so on. Collaboration (I tend to repeat this a lot) is not about being noble; it is about being reasonable and serious about our own legacy. This is important for the key people in any organisation to understand in today’s environment with high staff turnover and less focus of many (including great performing) staff on the legacy they leave after they move on to another job. Collaboration is not particularly well suited for those who seek quick return and a lot of kudos. It is, and should always be, overseen by ‘cathedral builders’, not ‘stone cutters’.
Trust comes up almost more than any other attribute or feature when we talk about collaboration. Not surprising, but also problematic. It is a heavily loaded term placing a substantial burden on collaborating parties in a moral frame; more so than in a business transaction sense. How much trust should we expect from our collaborating partner/s? What is a realistic point of reference? Should we seek the same level of trust from our business co-workers and stakeholders as we do from our friends and family? If so, why? If not, why not? Getting trust wrong is almost guaranteed to lead us to anything but collaborative success. Having said that, trust cannot and should not be used to offset the inefficiencies in diligence that collaboration demands. Collaborating partners can inadvertently create risks (particularly reputational ones) that have little to do with trust and a lot to do with well a laid out strategy.
What lessons we gain from failed collaboration essentially depends, not on our intelligence as students, but rather on the way we structure the collaboration in the first place. In other words, it is easy to apply logic when trying to understand what went wrong. Instead we should seek insight by asking the right questions which is only possible when we get the strategy right. As a rule of thumb, I advise my clients to keep one question in mind (a quick health check) throughout the process of collaboration; “When this project is over would I do another project with the same collaborating partner?” If at any moment the original sense of hope, excitement, confidence and dedication is not there, then it is worth pausing and examining the collaboration to ensure issues are not compounded.
The decision to move on from, or after, an unsuccessful collaboration should be a strategic decision about increasing the prospects of making the next collaboration much better. When a decision is made to walk away from a collaboration based on previous bad experiences, then that should be a strong signal to key leadership in any organisation that the major business driver has been ignored by a virtue of rationalising of organisational inaptitude. When it comes to collaboration in the 21st century, there’s very little room for sour grapes.
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