For decades, people have used the term “collaboration” to mean many things—from sharing intelligence and resources with allied nations during wars and peacekeeping missions, to gathering small teams in collab office spaces for networking and brainstorming sessions.
The recent global pandemic raised the prominence of “collaboration” to buzzword status. Within hours and days, millions of people around the world flocked to virtual realms to collaborate in video meetings, send chat notes, share screens and edit files online in real time. Faced with rigid self-quarantine measures, entire industries have been transformed by upgrading and retooling to become more connected and interconnected.
Achieving true collaboration requires more than simply using a new software program. Participants must have an incentive to invest time and effort into a collaborative process that has a compelling purpose.
The challenge is that if there is a lack of understanding about the need for shared accountability and transparent decision-making, organizations may struggle with obstacles and barriers along the way.
What, exactly, is collaboration and why the buzz? Why is being collaborative so difficult for some organizations? What must exist for collaboration to thrive?
What Is Collaboration?
Collaboration as its Latin root implies—laborare—means “to labor together” or “to work together.” It is sharing knowledge and communicating information (i.e., networking). It is also building a relationship where one person helps another to achieve personal goals (i.e., coordination and cooperation).
In 2002, Arthur Himmelman, author of “Collaboration for a Change,” declared that the word “collaboration” is overused by many people. He observed that people were using words such as “networking,” “coordination” and “cooperation” interchangeably with “collaboration.”
Troubled by misuse of the term, he set out to establish a concrete definition. According to Himmelman, collaboration is best defined as the “willingness to enhance the capacity of another for a common purpose.”
He illustrated this definition by way of a development continuum where each level builds on the next. As an organization moves through the continuum, there are opportunities to alter activities, share resources and work together for mutual benefit.
True collaboration requires a high degree of trust and a willingness to let go of one’s own power and “turf.” It means being fully aligned with a vision and a firm agreement to share decision-making, authority, and resources for the benefit of another person or group.
The Tamarack Institute built on Himmelman’s continuum by adding more levels and creating the Collaboration Spectrum Tool. The institute observed that many groups or organizations making the decision to share a common purpose or mandate start their engagement, however knowingly or unknowingly, by competing for clients, resources, partners and public attention.
As organizations move through the continuum, “turf” behaviors loosen. Trust begins to build while working toward more fully integrated programs, planning and funding.
Why the Buzz?
Collaboration may be a common buzzword, but why the buzz? What’s in it for leaders and organizations?
In organizations where collaboration is being embraced as the new normal, command-and-control management styles are being replaced by work cultures that welcome a greater diversity of knowledge, experience and ideas.
As teams work toward shared goals, they are building trust in one another and outgrowing the need to focus on individual performance. Every team member is developing an understanding of what is at stake and why their contributions matter. To advance in stride, everyone must participate.
“Behind all the current buzz about collaboration is a discipline. And with all due respect to the ancient arts of governing and diplomacy, the more recent art of collaboration does represent something new—maybe Copernican. If it contained a silicon chip, we’d all be excited,” says American author John Gardner.
A cohesive team that is open to a diversity of perspectives will also be more prone to knowledge-sharing and innovative thinking. If faced with sudden or rapid change, they already have experience learning, adapting and solving problems together. Add peer motivation, camaraderie and engagement to the mix, and this leads to stronger bonds with each other and greater productivity overall.
Why Is Becoming Collaborative So Difficult for Some Organizations?
Achieving collaboration will be more challenging when survival of the fittest tendencies and win-win attitudes are stubbornly ingrained in a person or work culture. Leaders who have long been fixated on status and territory, or who are competitive by nature, may not feel inclined to share their power and authority.
In a top-down hierarchical model, “bosses” tend to push employees to strive for their best performance, compete against other regions, and guard the release of departmental information. This leadership style encourages silo behavior.
Controlling leaders may stockpile resources or be slow to follow through. If their ideas are challenged, they may exhibit strong emotions and resistance. Collaboration can also be hindered by conflicting values that impair the capacity to develop mutually acceptable solutions.
David Chrislip, author of “The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook,” believes becoming more collaborative requires a profound shift in how people work together. It demands a new mindset that redirects energy away from individual achievements and channels it into building and strengthening mutually beneficial relationships. For collaboration to be effective, responsibility and accountability must be shared. (See Figure 1, below.)
Chrislip likens collaboration to building a wheel. He compares it to assembling disparate parts to create a powerful tool. A payoff or mutually beneficial relationship must exist where all parties strongly believe that going-it-alone will not achieve the expected results.
Employees who are genuinely respected as valued contributors can empower an organization with fresh ideas and innovative solutions. Creating a safe space where active listening and learning are encouraged enables even the quietest voices and brightest minds to be heard.
What Must Exist for Collaboration to Thrive?
For collaboration to thrive there must be: (1) a strong desire for mutual learning and inclusiveness, (2) a sound and transparent decision-making approach, and (3) strong leaders who link people, ideas and resources together for mutual benefit.
1. A strong desire for mutual learning and inclusiveness
A collaborative process seeks to build understanding before agreement. Participants must focus on listening to others and their concerns before making judgments and decisions. Every participant must have an equal opportunity to speak and shape discussions. No one person or group should dominate the discussion.
Gaining agreement on a series of smaller, less consequential topics helps participants learn how to work together. If there is work that can be done ahead of time, doing so will help move things along when teams get together.
“Every phase of collaboration from conception to implementation must be accomplished by people who reflect the client group through a credible and open process,” writes Chrislip. “Only by modeling collaboration, can collaboration work.”
2. A sound and transparent decision-making approach
Disagreements can result when there are differing approaches to decision-making or a lack of transparency about the decision path for how decisions will be made. When there is increased transparency around what drives decisions, this helps build trust and facilitates cooperation.
Decisions are about making choices—and good decisions are about making the right choices. When these choices are made as a team, there is a greater likelihood that participants will feel they have contributed in meaningful ways and are invested in the outcomes of decision-making.
In “The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan,” authors George Bradt, Jayme Check and John Lawler identify five ways that decisions can be made. (See Figure 2, below.)
Of all levels, Level 3 (you and I decide together) is the most challenging way to make decisions because two people must “agree to agree.” If there is a structure or agreed-upon approach, consensus decision-making will be easier.
Figure 3 highlights the methods of decision-making that can be used for the most difficult decisions. Decisions that require unanimous agreement, as opposed to a majority vote, must be specified in advance to ensure everyone understands the decision approach.
It is also important that participants understand the difference between an agreement and consent. It should be clarified in advance that people “agree” to do something that is typically a legal or contractual requirement (i.e., an obligation). On the other hand, consent is an acknowledgment that a person will tolerate a decision that is made.
Where does the real decision power reside? Key sources of power are people who set the rules, influence the decision, and control the resources required to implement a decision. Those who use this power in constructive ways to guide consensus-based decision-making are demonstrating collaborative leadership.
3. Strong leaders who link people, ideas and resources together for mutual benefit
Not everyone is naturally collaborative. Leadership traits consistent with a collaborative leader are more aligned with someone who is a “connector.” A connector is someone with the ability to mobilize and engage people, ideas and resources.
- Build trust by making it safe for people to say what is on their minds.
- Protect the group from individuals who risk disrupting the collaboration process or steering it off course.
- Protect and empower the meeker voices in the group.
- Share power and influence by using their personal power responsibly and offering people an active role in decision-making about matters that affect them.
- Rely significantly on peer problem-solving and create processes that ensure participants have an equal say in decision-making.
- Help the entire team shift to new ways of thinking.
Collaborative leaders can confidently say, “I am open to being influenced by others.” They have a strong sense of critical reflection to understand the impact of their own emotions on others, easily read the dynamics of a work group, and listen effectively to verbal and non-verbal cues.
A round table is more empowering to a group than a rectangular table. There is no “head of the table” when you are gathered in a circle.
This is not to suggest a dilution of leadership. On the contrary. Having vision, designing structure, setting goals, planning, mobilizing and facilitating are still critical to ensuring a collaborative process does not stagnate nor deviate.
Achieving true collaboration requires boldness. It requires strong, capable leaders willing to give up some of their power for the greater good, all while raising others up to bring out the best in them.
Being or becoming collaborative is as much a discipline as it is an attitude. It is a respectful agreement to share decision-making, resources and accountability to achieve a common purpose.