The collaboration trap: how to avoid being Buzz Lightyear

There is a scene in the Toy Story animated film (by the way, I strongly recommend all three of the movies) when Buzz Lightyear, the supremely self-confident toy space ranger, believes he is really flying while in fact he is being carried upwards by an elevator. However the scene doesn’t really warrant major analysis, in part because it is very familiar and many variations on the theme exist. Look no further than our daily lives and we can see children who do similar things. Adults do it too. Sometimes the boundaries between real and imagined may be very subtle, and this may be a more common problem than we’d like it to be. Knowing when we’re flying as a result of our own ability as opposed to other forces is relevant to any collaborative venture.


Overstating our own contribution and ability in the process of collaboration can get a project stuck in neutral real quick. Collaboration does not always fit neatly into just any kind of project management matrix. Let me clarify; external collaborations do not fit neatly, as opposed to internal ones which are based on much stricter governances. Internal collaborations tend to build on internal processes and organisational culture is very much part of that. On the other hand, external collaborations are far more complex, precisely because of a lack of known factors, the factors we like to control. In sum, this creates a precondition for behaviours that are not necessarily suitable for collaborations. For example, when entering into a collaborative arrangement, parties tend to display (not surprisingly) a sense of confidence to each other. However, that confidence can raise a barrier to trust-building, which is vital. In a collaborative environment, what comes as unexpected to many people is the spotlight and scrutiny by peers. Convincing a partner or partners that your organisation can be a great partner is one thing; living up to expectations is a story from another galaxy. An easy mistake to make and even easier to avoid when the collaboration strategy has been developed beforehand.

American author and educator Stephen Covey once remarked that “strength lies in differences, not in similarities”; by default both an attractive and complex insight to master. And yet it is the crucial aspect of collaboration, whether internal or external. What works against it are two factors; required change by all collaboration stakeholders and readjustment of participants’ own understanding of their capabilities. It can be brutally discomforting to hear from other partners that the capacity your organisation is bringing to the collaboration is simply not to the expected standard. This means that selecting a collaboration that is right for your organisation is not an easy task. It requires more than offering a list of capacities; it demands that the organisation thinks about the relevance of its own capacities to potential partners. Sometimes we may be forced to admit that systems, skills, resources etc. that work well for our organisation in its current setting may not amount to much when placed into a different business model. And, yes, collaboration is a business model that is not a simple tweaking exercise, but a ‘from the ground-up’ thinking process.

It is only when the proper amount of internal introspection is undertaken by senior management that a strategy can deliver on the promise of collaboration-driven benefits. I recall one example when I was negotiating a collaboration with a partner organisation that was much larger then my own at the time. I always remember how the months of discussion seemed a bit over the top at times. It was only a year into the collaboration project that I realised how valuable the small things can be. It is precisely for that reason that engagement with potential collaborating partners is a long process; a genuine amount of time must be dedicated to learn about others and their capability to succeed when collaboration reaches critical stages.

Taking time to ensure how much you can fly without the aid of an elevator goes a long way towards a great collaboration outcome.


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