Getting Serious About Collaboration

Collaboration is a bit of a buzzword these days. It is often that magic result we seek as we adopt a new technology solution or try to get employees to play nicely together in the sandbox. It’s a feel-good word. We all like it and if we attach the word to whatever we’re doing, it makes what we’re doing somehow more worthwhile.

I don’t like that. I want collaboration to be a serious word. One that we don’t use lightly. For that to happen, we need a deeper understanding of the word. That’s one way to escape the buzzword classification: be disciplined enough to have a clear definition (buzzwords prefer being fuzzy).

In Humanize, we start by referencing Morten Hansen’s definition. He literally wrote the book (well, a book) called “Collaboration.” He asserts that collaboration has two main components:

  1. it has to be between people. Data don’t collaborate (though people will often share data as part of their collaboration).
  2. the people need to be providing “significant help” to each other. In some instances it may only be one-way collaboration (one group helping another), but it has to be significant help (to distinguish it from simple cooperation).

That’s a good start, but the definition is still fairly linear, and I don’t think linear cuts it in today’s environment. It’s not enough if you really want to tap into the power of being human. For that, collaboration means you not only need to be working together to provide significant help (solving a problem, basically), you also ened to be building the ongoing capacity for collaboration (and future problem solving) at the same time. That’s generative collaboration. Solving problems together and building capacity at the same time.

Let me go out on a limb and suggest that most organizations are not very good at that. And I think that’s why we struggle with things like social media, and really collaborating with customers or members. That’s why we struggle with collaborating with external organizations (though we ofte pay lip-service to that). We may get to the problem solving part, but we don’t build the capacity. We need that capacity to create a flywheel effect, where we start to WANT to collaborate more and more because it’s so successful.

I feel like we need to go back to the drawing board a bit here. Take a look at the places in your organization where people are (supposedly) collaborating. Take a hard look at those processes, and see if there are ways you can modify the processes to enable those groups of people to increase capacity while they are working together to solve a problem. In the Humanize book we looked at two examples: how you do strategy, and how you do “brand.” Don’t just look for a better strategy document, look to develop the people so they can do strategy work better. Don’t just get customer input on what they like about your brand, find ways for them to co-create it. I think there are opportunities here to change the way we do things so we can collaborate in a much more powerful way.

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  1. 05.04.2012 at 8:52 am

    I love that collaboration gets boiled down to relationships between people instead of joint agreements between organizations. I love the process in The Collaboration Handbook:

    Envision results by working individual-to-individual.
    Empower ourselves by working individual-to-organization.
    Ensure success by working organization-to-organization.
    Endow continuity by working collaboration-to-community.

    While there model is designed specifically for community collaborative efforts, I think their approach holds potential for every organization, but perhaps in a less linear format. Bottom line though is it begins with people who develop trust with each other and then carry that trust back to their organization and colleagues to engage and invite them into a collaborative effort.

  2. 16.04.2012 at 12:46 pm

    Hi Jamie – so true on how the word collaborate has been softened and “fuzzified.” When we humans make sense of a concept (like “collaborate”) we really enjoy tailoring it to our own perspective and softening it to become acceptable to our own practices.

    Also, we often see with our clients that very few people are taking a look at collaboration within power structures. We’d like to think that collaboration is side-by-side, but not naming and recognizing the structure of authority that might be impeding the work. If I come into a meeting believing in my perspective of collaboration (defined as we are mutually making decisions), and my director comes in with their perspective of collaboration (the others are there to give input and ideas for a future, director level decision), we have a poorly constructed attempt that sours our future engagements.