There are moments that at times stretch into days of frustration caused by collaboration not going as planned. How that frustration plays out in the final outcome can be largely determined by the design of the collaborative strategy. Collaboration is a process of value creation with a significant focus on the critical examination of all components that are brought into a project. Often, collaborating partners bring ideas, approaches, knowledge, data, resources etc that they prize and believe would be best utilised in the project. It is the task of all other partners in the group to examine each of those elements in light of a shared goal. This is easier said than done because there is no 100% objective way to it. Collaboration relies as much on a degree of creative thinking, intuition and heuristics, as it does on what we might call hard evidence.
Practice makes perfect is the best way to put it: collaboration gets easier and more efficient the more it is practiced. By practice I also mean to include constant learning and researching. Although there is no shortage of interesting writing in the form of books, articles and case studies which are easily accessible for all collaboration practitioners, there is in equal measure a lot of areas in the field that are still not well researched. One of the interesting things I find in my own quest for learning more about collaboration is the recurrence of two kinds of feedback that people share after a collaboration project is finished. First, many consistently report that they were surprised how much more they were able to achieve through collaboration. The second observation is about the process of collaboration and how many find that they were doing things in ways previously not thought of.
“Maybe collaboration’s biggest surprise is the way that it can draw out the best in us!”
Both of these remarks tend to be introduced by “I/we were so surprised…”. Now, what is interesting here is not that partners are unaware that collaboration is about creating a premium offer, or that collaboration tends to stimulate creative and innovative solutions; but rather it is more the point about not quite being confident that results will be as good. In my view it is a case of a fledgling practice finding its rightful place in business. This is reflected in the fact that collaborations can also be expensive failures. As a result, and coupled with our own risk management logic, collaboration practitioners are reluctant to be bold with promises. Perhaps ‘promise less and deliver more’ is the default operating system that cautious participants prefer. No right or wrong way here to choose.
In my own research, I find that currently collaboration enjoys different degrees of acceptance in different industries. It is also very much divided across the types of organisations. This is significant for better understanding as to why certain collaborations produce ‘surprises’ and others do not. For instance, factors such as trust are critical in collaboration. It is hard to find an element of business functioning where trust plays such a foundational role as is the case with collaboration. We know that trust is vital in managing people, money etc. But we also know that in those areas such function is underpinned by a rich set of rules, guidelines, principles and compliances. Collaboration does not have that kind of luxury. While not totally devoid of those factors, it remains largely reliant on certain ‘codes’ that are about virtues and values. Collaboration thrives on a sense of shared goals that reconcile self-interest. As is neatly summed up by Ram Nidumolu (author of Two Birds in a Tree) and Jib Ellison (founder and CEO of Blue Skye), “without trust, most collaboration efforts are unlikely to survive, however noble the cause and worthy the participants”.
When reflecting on successful collaborations we should also examine those critical times where collaboration may have failed. It is useful to note that good outcomes may not be entirely due to the expertise of collaborating partners. An element of luck should not be underestimated if we are to learn how to collaborate better. Equally so, collaboration relies on so many subjective and intuitive factors (given that the majority of groups or people working together do not behave rationally 100% of the time). There are no small goals in collaboration. Or to put it differently, the collaboration process is as challenging when we try to work on a short term project, as it can be on a long term one, because it concerns us, the people who invest emotions and intellect into a relationship with others. A small project can elicit as much psychological stress precisely because of the human factor. Equally so, it can be a platform for displaying qualities that are not often practiced. Maybe collaboration’s biggest surprise is the way that it can draw out the best in us! When we invest trust and dedication, our own capabilities become the critical resource needed for any collaboration to work. Surprises from collaboration are little rewards and gauges that what we do matters. And if it matters then it should be done well.