While collaboration has often been praised and promoted as a cure all, endorsing it in this way borders on irresponsible. In business there are no easy, fail-safe ways of finding good business solutions to complex problems, designing winning strategies or delivering results that meet everyone’s expectations.
The appeal of collaboration is, however, understandably justified given that it does work; but only when treated as strategy and part of everyday business practice and not as ‘occasional’ exercise. Managers and employees get better with practice, training, ongoing learning etc. Collaboration is as much about culture as it is about being a disciplined method of work.
Nonetheless, collaboration does come with risk, and some businesses tend to manage that risk by avoiding collaboration altogether; a strategy that is becoming increasingly more difficult to maintain in the real world where collaboration is expected to be an essential competency of sustainable businesses.
To approach de-risking collaboration, it may be useful to put its risks into three categories; or rather three groupings. There are conventional risks, or the ‘usual suspect’ group. Then there is a group of risks that result from complexity of the business environment, and finally a group of organisational culture risks, which are internal risks.
The usual suspect is a category of risk that we hear a lot about and these are easily identified. They tend to be risks such as delays and disruptions and are often seen when businesses work on a joint project. These could include changes of leadership, failure of business stakeholders to maintain its end of the bargain, breaches of trust, reputational damage etc.
The second category is the kind of risk that occurs from emergent behaviours, caused by a complicated interplay of various factors on a global scale. For instance, this could include a natural catastrophe in some part of the world that then impacts on supply chains etc. Businesses rarely think of how events in a far away part of the globe can, not so much create a knock-on effect, but rather give rise to a completely different kind of disruption. This type of complexity-driven risk has been visible since the start of the COVID pandemic, by way of example, which created opportunities for cyber threats to skyrocket because businesses shifted to work from home environments which were not well prepared nor protected.
The third category is related to all the factors that go into creating and maintaining an organisation’s culture. This is something that managers can control more easily than anything else, but at times fail to do so.
Either collaboration needs to be seen as integral part of business culture, something that is absolutely vital to the way business wants to compete and thrive, or it can be viewed as an ‘add-on’.
Managing collaboration risks has always attracted a high degree of attention from managers. At times well meaning interest was in fact a thinly veiled admission that managers were not convinced in the benefits of collaboration in the first place. Among a few well understood reasons, one that stands out is the fact that many managers have found success in career progression precisely for being less collaborative and working in cultures where competition and collaboration are seen as mutually exclusive.
Any collaboration involves a major change management process which is not always easy because it requires a shift in values, beliefs and behaviours. On top of that, the entire process comes with risks.
The thrust of this point is that de-risking collaboration can be approached from two different standpoints. Either collaboration needs to be seen as integral part of business culture, something that is absolutely vital to the way business wants to compete and thrive, or it can be viewed as an ‘add-on’.
The difference in attitude has major impact on how risk is assessed, understood and treated. In cases where collaboration is part of the core of business strategy, risks that are say from the internal culture grouping, can be treated differently by more proactive culture management processes. Trust in the workplace would have to be ranked as being of high importance and indicators such as employee engagement would have to be regularly monitored. Trust is one of the most oft mentioned challenges in team collaboration (internal risks) which naturally flow on into business-to-business collaboration.
Major behavioural findings have showed that while, on average, non-collaborating employees are more likely to win against collaborating employees, the situation is reversed when it comes to business-to-business competition. A group of collaborative employees will outcompete a group of non-collaborative employees. This has proven to be the case time and time again and lessons that can be gleaned from this suggest that the right attitude to collaboration is actually the starting point in de-risking it.