Collaboration. What’s the Point?

In case you haven’t noticed collaboration and social are all the rage in business circles these days.  We have social project management, collaborative leadership strategies, social CRM, collaborative content creation, social media marketing, and even collaborative HR goal setting.  But aside from attaching to the latest business fad and being buzz-word compliant, really what is the point of it all?

Surely not more collaboration!  People who jump on the business band wagon of collaboration must first understand two key principles.  Otherwise, they risk getting pulled off in more collaboration directions than they intended and risk creating an angry mob of would-be collaborators fueled by unmet expectations and disappointment.

The first principle is that Collaboration is a way to get things done.  It is a means to an end.  You have certainly heard the phrase, “many hands make light work.”  The idea is that shared effort achieves the goal more quickly than working alone.  The goal is not “more hands” for the sake of more hands.  The goal is not “more hands” for the sake of warm fuzzy feelings of inclusion (though that may be a side effect).  The goal is not “more hands” so that everyone can feel that they got to have their say.  The goal is “light work”.  This may translate to  “better work” or “higher quality levels” or “quicker innovation” or “greater customer satisfaction”.  Too many organizations want to collaborate for the sake of collaboration rather than for the sake of the business.

The second principle follows from the first.  When the effort, purpose and goals are clearly communicated to collaborative teams then success is much more likely.  When the end-state vision is shared by all participants, then collaboration is directed and more likely to yield dramatic results. This direction is what allow the work to be identified, divided and shared – collaboratively… organically… naturally.  I am not talking about top-down, waterfall style project planning.  But neither am I talking about simply gathering smart people into a room and saying, “go forth and collaborate!”  For collaboration to be successful teams need to be directed towards the goal and purpose then allowed to work along the unique social strengths that characterize that particular group.  This means that leadership and accountability are absolutely necessary but heavy-handedness and micro-management are absolutely to be avoided.

The necessity of “executive sponsors” for the success of  E20 and collaborative projects has been identified for some time.  However, I believe that those who suggest that an executive cheerleader is all that is needed  are missing the boat.  Executive sponsors and internal Sr. champions are needed because they are the ones who typically set direction, define success/fail criteria and have the vision for how the outcome of the collaborative project is to be woven into the fabric of the business as a whole.  This is a degree riskier for those executives, directors and strategy mavens inside the organization.  Not only do they need to champion a spend on technology, but they also have to stick their necks out and trust the teams (be they well or loosely defined) to achieve the desired goals without the traditional big-stick micro-management methodologies that command-and-control business schools taught.

So there you have it.  In today’s collaboration-crazed business remember 2 things.  1) Collaboration is a means to an end.  Know the goal before you start trying to collaborate your way there.  2) The goal needs to be clearly communicated, shared, directed and led.  Executive sponsors are uniquely suited for this role but anyone willing to step up, define the direction and be held accountable for it can do it.

What should not be forgotten is that: Collaborating should never be the goal of collaboration.

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