Collaboration: what you should know before you start door knocking

Starting a collaboration can sometime be similar to starting a diet. You reach a point where you acknowledge that collaboration is a strategy your business should really engage in, but for whatever reason you are still drawn to urgent but less critical things. Procrastination or not, it is certainly not unusual to delay important issues. In business, there is a price to pay in delaying, and there is a risk to underestimating major drivers such as collaboration.

The first step towards collaboration is, in fact, not that easy to make. The familiarity of the concept of collaboration is such that we easily develop an overblown sense of confidence that we can cooperate easily once we start. The fact is that very quickly after you start the real work, there are more questions than answers. However, this is also where the real creative, strategic, innovative and rewarding work starts. I will try here to not reduce the entire discipline of collaboration into a few key bullet points, but at the same time provide some useful pointers that may serve as a necessary exercise before any collaboration. In this instance I will focus on five points that, when well understood, should go a long way towards making the collaboration process rewarding and effective.


1. Have you thought hard enough about governance?

By far the least favourite and least understood area of collaboration and yet the most likely area of potential risk in the long run is governance. Collaboration is not that well legislated in corporate law. It is also not well understood because most of the major successful business stories of the past were not collaborative in nature. That is going to change in the not too distant future, and for many this will be a major field of work focus. The nature of risk in this space is tricky. For instance, when are you collaborating vs colluding? Regardless of the complexities of this question, the answer lies in diligent work of setting up a clear governance model that suits the collaborative partners.


2. Do you have a lead person?

While collaboration indicates a level playing field, it does not mean that hierarchy is not welcome nor possible. On the contrary, hierarchy in a collaboration is a very effective approach, however it is very different to the way it works in a traditional enterprise. For that reason it is absolutely critical to have a lead person that can start the ball rolling. This is not to suggest that only one person should develop the collaboration. It only means that at the beginning there should be a clear lead person who can set things into motion and ensure processes are followed until the main architecture of the collaborative is set in place. The choice of lead person is a critical decision.


3. Are you prepared for a diversity of responses (including broken promises)?

Without a shadow of a doubt, all collaborations are very likely to experience a lot of changes as they go about achieving their goal. One of the very common and often very disheartening scenarios is seeing one or more collaborating partners fail to operate as agreed. They may cite a range of reasons, including internal factors in their own organisation (such as, ‘we have a new CEO’) which prevents them from being committed in the way they initially indicated. Many of these changes can seriously disrupt the flow of the collaboration. These kinds of factors have to be anticipated and analysed, and remedial strategies put in place. Collaborations are disruptions, but they are also subject to disruptions!


4. Are you prepared for a marathon?

marathonCollaboration is a tour de force. It is very much possible that a collaborating partner can experience a full range of challenges that are also common in a traditional business setting. The difference in the collaboration context is that partners need to be able to deal with those changes in a more resilient way. The lure of collaboration should not override the due diligence and self-examination that every partner (big or small) should conduct before committing. Entering into a collaboration without knowledge of one’s own capacity to sustain the effort is unfair to the other partner/s. More critically, it can damage your own brand and render it irrelevant for future collaborations.


5. Are you ‘trying’ or ‘doing’?

Do not underestimate the wisdom of ‘the Force’. Yoda makes a perfect point in saying that there is no trying, only doing. Successful enterprises, regardless of size or type, can be separated from the rest by their attitude to any strategy; adhering principally to strategy and having a clear commitment to actually doing what is necessary, as opposed to always ‘trying’ and thus subtly revealing a lack of belief in the goal. Collaboration will test your drive and determination like nothing else. It is guaranteed to make you doubt the final goal, and it will make you wonder if there was a better (in reality we mean easier) way to achieve that goal. All this is heavily influenced by the simple fact that the proportion of initial enthusiasm expressed in most collaborations is not realistically sustainable. This naturally creates the perfect situation for a low point. However, as with most difficulty things worth doing, a resilience attitude, based on drive and grit and supported by talent and skill will pay strong dividends.

So may you start the collaboration with the wisdom of Master Yoda in mind; “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.

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