Collaboration Anxiety: unfounded fear of failure

Collaboration. Such a warm and fuzzy term and yet so terrifying at times. It implies all the things humans crave. Being included in a group. Sharing your knowledge and ideas. Sharing goals and celebrating wins and successes. All true. However, it also brings up anxieties of all kinds. What if our knowledge is less valued than others? What if there’s tension? How about failure? Who might get blamed if a collaborative project does not end well?

Great visual by Gavin Keech from METAMAPS.CC.  Source: http://blog.metamaps.cc/design-thinking-collaboration-2/

Great visual by Gavin Keech from METAMAPS.CC.
Source: http://blog.metamaps.cc/design-thinking-collaboration-2/

These are not questions that collaborating teams like to bring up. In fact I doubt they are given the consideration they deserve in the planning process. And thus anxiety. Sometimes a crippling anxiety that can prevent collaborators from living up to their full potential. So how to overcome it? An easy answer would be to direct our attention to the fact that collaboration has to be deliberate, purposeful and above all built upon a solid business case. Despite the cacophony of voices urging us to collaborate, notwithstanding this writer being one of the contributors, this should not be confused with advice to rush into it without due strategic process. Anyone who has tried collaborating knows that some individuals and groups have a somewhat natural predisposition to it, while others may find it unavoidably challenging. People work differently. Individuals tend to make advantage of their skills and talents in a way that may or may not also work well in a collaborative setting. This in itself is reason enough for a serious enterprise to ensure that the best person is appointed to lead the examination of diverse factors on which a case for or against collaboration can be made.

A more complex issue affecting collaboration relates to from how well the path for collaboration has been drafted. This inevitably has to accommodate for the differences between collaborating parties; especially when there are external organisations in play. Collaboration is not supposed to pressure collaborating agencies to change their identity, brand and signature approach. On the contrary, the collaboration strategy seeks to dovetail all variations into a shared process. This is vital as collaborating partners, be they individuals and/or teams in the same organisation, or teams across different organisations. For one, no collaborator wants to lose out. At the very least collaboration should maintain the existing clarity and brand of each collaborating party. At its best it can enhance branding, with the end product providing enough hints and insights to speak of the influence of different parties. For instance, and in a way the simplest example to use, next time you listen to your favourite radio station, listen for a song that has been produced as a collaboration between artists. If successful it sounds like a new song, but one can sense the influence of all artists involved.

This goes to the heart of what I refer to as collaboration anxiety. The fear that collaboration could fail on many levels; particularly the risk to a collaborator’s reputation. And part of the solution then is about being aware of how collaboration works over time and clearly address issues that might emerge. Here it is worth reflecting on one of the basics of a good business strategy; knowing what is coming around the corner and being prepared to adapt to it in a proactive way. Collaboration as a strategy itself needs to interlock with broader business strategies in order to lead to increased value for all collaborators. It needs no special mention that embarking on collaboration is far more than drumming up support for teamwork. It is about sophisticated internal analysis that uncovers how collaboration as a strategy can produce unique competitive advantages, what resources are needed for such an approach and, perhaps most critically, priming the key people, departments etc. Being confident in which steps to take is what takes the sting out of the anxiety.

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