Collaboration: Not Easy? It\’s Vital

This blog shares a personal perspective on what Collaboration between organizations can be, and why we need so much more of it.

I’m presently working on having a programme I value dearly take root in Ethiopia. A few weeks back I visited an acquaintance who has been lending us his LCD projector on several occasions. I feel grateful for this act of generosity, and when I thanked him profusely, he said: ‘No need to thank all the time: ultimately, in the bigger picture, through your programme, we know we will all benefit.’ What he said made me smile.

And just yesterday I got back to another colleague who generously offered a venue for an upcoming launching event we’re preparing, and the response to my thanks was similar. Such instances make me reflect: if such kind acts of cooperation are so beneficial, imagine what collaboration could bring about! I certainly wish to practice it more.

Believing in the promises of collaboration, in this blog, I intend to explore what collaboration is, and how we can express it in our lives and organizations. Furthermore, my reflections will focus on the collaboration that can take place between organizations.

What is Collaboration?

Distinguishing between cooperation and collaboration may be worthwhile here.

According to Jesse Lyn Stoner, Cooperation entails the exchange of relevant resources and information between individuals in networks, in support of each other’s goals. Something new may be achieved as a result, but it arises from the individual, not from a collective team effort.

Collaboration, on the other hand, is working together to create something new in support of a shared vision. The key points are that is not an individual effort, something new is created, and that the glue is the shared vision.* The power of collaboration, I believe, is the creation of something new, together.

Why do we Need it?

While sitting in a meeting where different associates from the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL) convened in Johannesburg to give updates, a lady working on a project in South Africa shared: ‘During these times, we can no longer depend on the knowledge we have to make things happen. The knowledge base is changing so much and so quickly, that we need to depend on each other and collaborate to make the things we wish to see happen.’

To further illustrate the extent to which the knowledge base is changing, this CCL Associate shared how in the 1800s it changed every 150 years, while in the present day the frequency is every 72 days. We therefore need to access, understand and process more information more quickly, and we need the help of others more than ever. We are living in an interdependent world, full of complex challenges. Collaboration seems to be a way in which we can create something new to respond to these challenges creatively…together.

In a Groups conversation on LinkedIn, Jay Patel was sharing how for small and medium scale organizations, it may be beneficial to collaborate with large scale companies (and multinationals), as they can learn new technologies, work styles and ways of thinking. He also asserts that this enables them to become more trustworthy in the market and to survive.

An example that comes to my mind of a collaborative practice is Toyota treating suppliers as a market place, training them to produce better even if this may benefit competitors.

Therefore, if we work in organizations that want to grow, that want to be agile in today’s environments, collaboration with organizations is highly recommended. This proposition sounding so attractive, what do we need to be mindful of?

Possible Challenges when Initiating Collaboration

If collaboration as an idea sounds so attractive, why do we often hear that it’s not happening between organizations as it should?

What I’m learning is that collaboration goes beyond working out compromises with your stakeholders, to make sure that they are motivated to support the decisions one makes.

As Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs** state, ‘collaborative relationships are characterized by authentic, open self expression and the constructive clarification and working-through of differences honestly faced. Collaboration means a relationship in which there is both individual integrity and shared vision and purpose. This is one of the reasons why truly collaborative relationships are so rare.’ Therefore, in environments where open, authentic collaboration, individual integrity and a collective purpose are not there, it’s more challenging to foster collaboration.

I would also add that:

–  Collaborative leadership is based on respect, trust and the wise use of power, with the leaders being willing to let go of control. Maybe this cannot happen in traditional top-down, hierarchical environments: to create something new team members may need to feel free to experiment and make mistakes,

–  Fostering a culture of mutual empowerment, of the celebration of the success of others, and shared responsibility takes considerable time, patience and effort. This requires maturity and intention.

Indeed, in the following circumstances especially, collaboration as a practice is not advisable if: the goals of the two organizations in question differ, if there are issues around intellectual property, or if one’s organization is incapable of applying changes to work methods. Also, other factors like confidentiality of information, lack of trust or loss of focus on decided plans could influence the collaboration between two entities.

And yet, fostering collaboration is not an impossible feat.

Where to Start?

Perhaps we can start with the self. For me, being ready to collaborate begins with letting go of some of my idea about what will get me there, and be open to the possibility that there are other ways of seeing things. It means respecting other people’s perspectives, rather than dismissing them as being ‘wrong’ or ‘unrealistic’.

As per Kaihan Krippendorff’s*** advice, I may:

  1. Establish Capacity: get together with team members (and members from the other organization) who can bring a diversity of experiences and perspectives,
  2. Set the Context: encourage such team members to broadly read about the collaborative topic, experiment with broad range of potential solutions, and develop prototypes to experiment,
  3. Maintain Coherence: ensure the team does not lose momentum by inspiring, sharing the progress and finding creative ways to engage the team,
  4. Manage Complexity: in Krippendorff\’s words, ‘innovative ideas are always inconsistent with prevailing logic and beliefs, so your challenge now is to manage the complexity of converting your idea into reality. This means starting to influence beyond your team so the idea catches on, networking in the broader organization to get people on board’.

This could include building a collection of notebooks, documents, data, videos, pictures, and sound recordings that will serve as a record of the team’s work and journey.   The above practices will lay the foundation for a culture of collaboration.

Managing the Challenges that really Matter

So, if you are part of a team and you wish to see a better outcome in the work of the collective, or if you are leading an organization that is open to collaborate and manage those challenges out there that really matter, please share your thoughts with us:

–          Where are you successful in your collaborative practices?

–          Where is it that you wish you could collaborate more?

–          In what way are you fostering a culture of collaboration in your team or organization?

*      Jesse Lynn Stoner, http://seapointcenter.com/cooperation-teamwork-and-collaboration/

**    Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs \’Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change\’, p. 149

*** Kaihan Krippendorff, http://www.fastcompany.com/3004139/thomas-edisons-keys-managing-team-collaboration?goback=.gde_56766_member_199129612

Image by: Jolatna Soltis (web.njit.edu)