Convincing collaboration

In his opening chapter of An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume points out that one cannot win an argument against someone who defends an opinion in which they do not believe. In other words, if a person engages in a discussion for any reason other than to defend what they believe, one cannot make them change their opinion because the source of their argument is not based on reason.


I have found this out the hard way. Perhaps unwilling to heed the advice of those who know better, I am like any average Joe on the street; I prefer to find out for myself even when energy could be spared by putting more trust (even at the risk of it being of the blind kind) into what others have discovered before me. Now, this is not difficult to understand given the findings of another great investigator of human behaviour, Harvard University’s Professor Dan Gilbert. Prof Gilbert has carved out a niche in specialist knowledge about a type of human behaviour with which we are all very familiar; the faulty way we imagine our future. But more about that in moment. For now I want to return to the original point by Hume who also understood the value of collaboration in all kinds of human endeavour and the set of psychological drivers (or sentiments as the great Scot preferred to conceptualise them) that sits behind it.

There are times when I speak about collaboration to people only to realise belatedly that I probably tried too hard. Carried away with a promise that someone just might realise how much potential there is in collaboration, I ignore what Hume noticed centuries ago; there’s not much point in discussing a subject unless all parties have their own beliefs. So, as a result of a somewhat Don Quixotic attempt to engage, debate and explore potential for finding a shred of interest in collaboration, I soon realise that the opportunity cost is too high. Now, these experiences are not that common; but regardless, when they do happen I wonder what, if anything, can be done to make collaboration more convincing a narrative.

In talking to different people I have learned that most people actually experience a similar thing. The more focused we are on collaboration, the more we ignore the perils of wasting what otherwise could be an opportune time to create value through collaboration. Be that as it may, I started to look into the patterns of such situations based on what I experience in my own work, as well as listening to what other collaboration minded people have to say. It turns out that there are some commonalities. One particular one that, if it was not frustrating would be amusing, is the high prevalence of moments when the conversation partner is a government sector worker. Not surprising. Not surprising for a wide range of reasons which are not too difficult to understand. However, the increased chatter among government agencies about the merits of collaboration versus the actual practice are far from negligible. Normally the reaction by those who in Hume’s opinion argue their position without really believing in it themselves, comes via the words ‘let me be the devil’s advocate’ and then proceeding to list a trillion things that are wrong with collaboration; as if to suggest that the status quo is a work by Michelangelo.

Similar things happen in conversations with some people who work in the private sector as well as the not for profit world. All kinds of reasons are offered to suggest that collaboration would not work for them. I certainly do not argue that collaboration is the right strategy for all and at all cost. In fact, I make it very clear that it is precisely because of the risks and costs that come with collaboration that businesses have to fully understand the collaboration strategy before they say no to it. What happens is often not a rational, well thought of, analysed and sensible strategic response. It is often more a case of fearing change and risks, which understandably is not everyone’s cup of tea.

The point to bear in mind is this: assisting people to recognise the enormous value of collaboration in business activity is a slow process that requires appreciation of the legitimate reservations individual decision makers hold when first faced with collaboration. Collaboration is not something to be ‘sold’ to a partner. Rather it is about ‘negotiation’ that will lead to the best outcome. It is then that collaboration is most convincing; when people act collaboratively because they believe in the collaboration; not because they accept it as some kind of imposed doctrine.

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