As you all know, I have a vested interest in collaboration, so if this piece sounds a bit ‘it’s all about collaboration’, that is probably because it is. My main point is not that collaboration is unavoidable and that everything has to be done collaboratively. What I do think is that almost everything can be done better with collaboration as the baseline.
One of the critical features of collaboration is that it differs from many other strategies in that it can be a bit unpredictable. It’s a little bit like a dance competition with many partners. While the steps and moves (being a bad dancer I should have used a better metaphor) may emerge from practiced choreography, the fact remains that we are scored not only on technical aspects of the dance but also on the chemistry and the ‘x’ factor. Collaboration’s ‘x’ factor is largely made up of two parts; trust and the balance between self-interest and shared interest. The latter is all about negotiations and credibility that partners bring into the collaboration. The former goes further and it can test each partner’s capacity to be committed and resolve challenges as they appear without wavering from the original goal. This is where the resilience of individual agents and collectives can be tested.
All collaborations have a weak spot. These are not intrinsically located in a lack of resources, or lack of skills and capacities per se. Although a combination of all factors may be the centre of the weakness, I find that it is more the level of synchronised progress between parties that tends to put pressure on the final outcome. A simple and yet easily forgotten aspect of collaboration, and one I never get tired of repeating, is “if a collaboration does not change you, then you probably are not collaborating”.
Collaboration is very likely to push people and organisations out of their comfort zones. At times it can seem downright threatening. At times it not as easy for collaborating parties to distinguish which threat or challenge, however they perceive it, is about a shared goal and which may be solely driven by self-interest. Those challenges can easily create a rift that causes trust deficit.
One of the potential remedies for such situation is in fact more of a preventative measure that a good collaboration strategist should deploy at the start; i.e. ensure that the early stages of collaboration are not rushed. Striking while the iron’s hot does not work here. Collaboration should focus on an attitude shift whereby collaborating partners realise that the strategies that got them to be winners now require of them a re-frame of their winning approaches. An essential part of this is understanding that all parties must be prepared to act as redundancies for their partners, as opposed to ‘each man for himself’. This may sound unfair to those who are rewarded by operating on the traditional basis whereby each parson/agency exclusively focuses on their own tasks and rely on others to do the same. However, far from implying that one party should do the ‘heavy lifting’ for another, what I am suggesting is that collaboration’s disruptive power can be hard to respond or adapt to. Some are better at it than others. Some have better capacities, resources or experience that may make a difference in the way they respond to the potential bursts of disruption that come with collaboration. It is at those moments that the collaborative strategy is fully tested. If partners have secured a workable governance and management structure, these will reveal themselves as the major strengths for a collaboration project. And, at times that may mean that a collaborating party will respond differently when their partner is experiencing difficulties.
When all this is considered and when potential collaborators have examined the real drivers behind their need or desire to collaborate, then some of these issues can be factored in. These are the components of the collaboration that should be approached with diligent attention by all parties. To enjoy the dance, it’s good preparation and agreement on a range of factors that will make for a good party. So, next time when you encounter the old excuse that collaboration is difficult, remember to point out that the best parties are the result of better collaboration.