What to Do When Your Collaboration Textbook Doesn’t Have All the Answers

There is an abundance of excellent advice about the way collaboration can work, both internally and externally, and which can genuinely make a noticeable difference to any enterprise that appreciates the positive impact of collaboration. For the past couple of decades, collaboration has been researched and applied with increasing intensity; an intensity that is linked to, and in some cases stems directly from, a number of changes such as increased connectivity of commerce, complexities that pose new challenges to businesses and rapid digital transformation, to name a few.

A good number of global business leaders have made use of collaboration to outperform their rivals, disrupt industries and produce innovative services. Worth recalling is the now legendary launch of iPod by Apple that competed directly against the then market-leader in the portable music player category, Sony. There are a number of valuable lessons to be learned from that particular business case. One of the most striking is the impact of the strong silo culture of Sony, as opposed to collaborative culture of Apple. Steve Jobs (one of the most vocal business leaders about the benefits of collaboration) was proud to highlight the role of Apple’s collaborative culture in developing a product and strategy to outcompete a more established player.

Collaboration, however, remains a challenge for many organisations. Barriers to successful collaboration have been, and continue to be, investigated with somewhat mixed results. But this hasn’t prevented many in trying to simplify the process of collaboration and offer reference books and templates promising results.

On one end of the spectrum, advice can be almost trivial in its simplicity. On the other, collaboration can be presented as an ‘almost impossible to grasp’ strategy.

Developing collaboration capabilities goes beyond textbook recipe…

What I have learnt, though, in over 15 years of intense focus on the subject, is that collaboration has the best chance of delivering return on investment when it is unreservedly encoded into the culture of an organisation. 

There are two main reasons for this. Culture is the most powerful enabler of thinking and creativity, which is critical to good collaboration. Secondly, and stemming from this, is the simple fact that collaboration is not pure technical skill; it is also an evolving, innovative co-learning space which progresses the more it is part of the everyday experience for employees. You can’t collaborate on a whim.  It evolves when we grasp the limitations of an individual’s ability to solve problems or create new value and pivot the basis of strategic direction.  Leading on from here, problems are framed as challenges that actively involve input from others, who may even be competitors. Collaboration is, in a sense, strategic realignment away from ‘competitors are enemies’ to ‘competitors are rivals’. The latter leaves a possibility for businesses to both compete and collaborate simultaneously.   

It is crucial to acknowledge that nothing can fully eliminate barriers to collaboration. There is no formula for collaboration as such. There is no magic recipe.  But there is a solid and proven body of management and strategy knowledge that can help businesses control the collaboration process and see desired results materialise. In other words, there must be a disciplined approach to collaboration, as in any other business practices. 

The Idea that collaboration works better than competition is very weak in the world – and I still feel sorry for that.

Carlo Rovelli -theoretical physicist

Collaboration needs dedication and mandate. It needs accountability and careful planning. But above all needs to start with critical thinking that clearly understands what collaboration has become in the 21st century. It also needs understanding that people’s capacity to collaborate is not innate.  People will collaborate only when culture enables such behaviour.  

This is why collaboration needs to be led by the right people for the job – managers that have the courage to face uncertainty, grapple with risks, and find solutions that are not written in any collaboration textbook. 

To make it clear, I am not in the slightest against books that provide advice on how to collaborate; I merely think that sometimes their intent does not quite hit the mark. Not because the advice is weak, but because collaboration is a mindset, attitude and commitment all rolled into one. The best of collaboration comes when managers, or even better, the most senior of executives, start to think about collaboration in an original way; that is, when they start to think like strategists and innovators and understand that collaboration offers a broad range of benefits to a business. 

It is this investment from leaders in any enterprise that translates into enthusiasm, which is then observed and embraced by the whole organisation. And that doesn’t happen when executives or middle managers read ‘how to’ books.