The simplest image that comes to mind when we mention collaboration is ‘working together’. Yet, despite the logic of the literal translation of the word, the real meaning is somewhat richer. I think the focus should be on the desired end result: making our enterprises more relevant; more competitive. Oftentimes when we only see the literal, we fail to see the powerful.
The very idea of collaborative work is likely to challenge us. We are expected to work differently, and therein lies the change element we rarely look forward to. The answer to our mild anxiety (even when we seem to unable to detect it ourselves) is to seek anything familiar that may come our way. And this is where we turn to nepotism without even thinking about the real goal of collaboration. We seek to work with people we know. People we have developed trust in, and people we like. While there’s nothing wrong in principle about working with people we already know, the trouble is that our collaborative strategy will be weak and biased towards the relationship rather than the outcome. The comfort we feel when we collaborate with people with whom we share some history creates a blind spot in our focus on the fact that collaboration is not about feeling good while we produce, but feeling good because we produce better outcomes.
This is what I mean by soft nepotism. A barrier is formed when we focus on elements of self-preservation and self-interest by surrounding ourselves with things that are familiar and safe, while on the other hand we ignore the increased risk of failure from poor collaboration. This is not to contradict the idea that trust is vital in good collaboration. On the contrary, it needs to be there. But the point is to build trust based on strategy, not simply on human factor preferences. It is only natural to want to work with people we trust, we know and we like. However there’s nothing un-natural about working with strangers and people who are different and we may even not be sure about (on a personal level that is). Professional capacity to create a working relationship should be explored and deployed to the fullest when shared goals are established.
This is precisely why collaboration can’t work unless it is strategised as a competitive tactic. It doesn’t matter if it’s about internal collaboration where employees of the same organisation are expected to be more productive, or if two or more organisations collaborate as a means of achieving new goals such as growth, a new customer base, innovation etc. In most cases very few would admit to nepotism because in a strict sense this kind of behaviour leads to stagnation and often complete failure. We do not employ people purely because they are close to us through family or other links. But the subjective forces that govern human behaviour are not always apparent. As Prof Dan Gilbert observed in his research, humans ‘cook the facts’ and are ‘wonderful rationalisers’. Therefore having a strong sense of purpose and a clear way for achieving it should also be the guiding principle in selecting the right collaborators. If we happen to like who we collaborate with, then no harm done