Does your team want to play your game? Collaboration is about process and people

In theory, collaboration is a win/win strategy based on the assumption that when people work together they produce an outcome that benefits everybody involved.  It is most effective if a process is designed to encourage transparency and clarity – to take the sting out of any disagreement that may arise.  Focus on the process, not the people.  Prepare a water-tight joint venture agreement.  Define the budget and deliverables.

However, no matter how clear a process is or how worthwhile the benefits of collaborating might be, unless the people involved want to work together, there will be a no-win result.

To maximise the profit and innovation collaboration may bring, business owners often focus on the logistics of making it happen.   They can forget to consider how the people further down the chain of command may feel about collaborating.  For example, staff may feel defensive and not trust their counterparts, particularly if they have been competitors in the past.

This was dubbed the “Collaboration Blind Spot” in the Harvard Business Review with reference to different business units within organisations collaborating with each other.  To eliminate this blind spot, research shows that leaders need to check:

  1. How each group sees themselves.  What are they proud of?  How important do they see themselves within the organisation and to customers?  What do they believe their role is?
  2. How does one group think the other group sees them.  Perhaps one group thinks they are better than the other, with more expertise?
  3. How much autonomy is each group used to having. What do they usually have control over?

I think business owners need to ask similar questions  when they want or need to collaborate with other businesses.  I have been involved with two companies whose leaders were great mates so they loved the idea of collaborating on projects, but little thought was given to how well their staff would work together.  The leaders fell out because one company was consistently late in paying the other on time.  The companies had a contract setting out the terms of payment, but like any contract – it was the relationship of the parties behind it that really determined how the collaboration worked.

It transpired that a manager from the non-paying company did not trust the accuracy of an ex-colleague from the other company so she would not approve that company’s progress claims for interim payments.   The back story: a power play between a former supervisor and her underling who became her equal in the other company.  It only takes one high-impact disagreement at a lower-level to polarise organisations and plant the seeds of distrust that can ultimately undo collaboration. 

Then no-one wins.

An independent facilitator (like me) would have been ideally placed to set the scene for a healthy working relationship between those groups.  This could have been done in a workshopping environment with all group members present to:

  1. Ensure each group understands the ‘why’ behind the collaboration.  Have they ‘bought into’ how the collaboration will benefit their own group and the project as a whole? 
  2. Establish relationships through informal contact before formal collaboration begins.  Do the people within one group know the people within the other group beyond their email address?  Do they like  (or at least) respect the others?
  3. Give public recognition of each group’s achievements.  This will establish the legitimacy of their place in the collaboration.
  4. Set a framework of how the collaboration will work at management level.  For example, what roles will each group have to minimise overlaps?  When will issues be escalated to leaders to ensure there are no bottle necks?

I don’t know much about American Baseball, but I like this quote:

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success.  You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together the club won’t make a dime.” – Babe Ruth 

Likewise, you may have the greatest plan on paper or a superbly drafted contract to make your proposed collaboration look like a win/win strategy but don’t underestimate how much the people dynamic and the relationships involved will ultimately affect your business success.