To collaborate or not to collaborate – it’s a valid question!

quelling chaos; quickening innovation

To collaborate or not to collaborate – it’s a valid question!

There’s lots of talk within and between organisations about the need for more collaboration, and the belief that it can achieve better outcomes. I support this notion. However, it can be difficult to do when people don’t have a useful understanding of the nature of collaboration.

“Collaborate” literally means ‘to work together’. However true collaboration is a distinctive superior level of working together. There are other modes of ‘working together’ besides Collaboration, and the differences can be meaningful.

In addition to Collaboration, there is Co-ordination mode and Co-operation mode. These three modes differ in the type and degree of interaction and their goals – distinctions that come from “Designing effective collaboration” a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (2008).

Co-ordination – driven by a directive; requires people to follow instructions; trust not key to success; value unlikely to be gained by people involved
Co-operation – may be driven by a directive; requires medium level of trust; value may be gained by one party or neither
Collaboration – driven by mutual self-interest; open-ended series of interactions; requires high levels of trust; value gained by all parties and creation of new value

One of the key ideas distinguishing collaboration is mutual value and value creation. This necessitates being literate about different kinds of value, and a belief in your power to create or capture such value.

Another of the key ideas distinguishing collaboration is self-interest and independence. In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds (2005), James Surowecki, says “The best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.” and “Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest not consensus or compromise.

Mutual value and independence are not the normal way of thinking or acting in groups – but they are what’s necessary for true collaboration. So how do you calibrate yourself and others to this different way of being and acting?

Conversations for Collaboration

A decade ago, a friend introduced me to a model of 5 Conversations for Collaboration. (Source note: I’ve given the model this title because neither of us can remember his source and I can’t find mention of this on the web.) These are calibration activities, that prepare one for collaborating.

These conversations are sequential, cumulative and can be revisited repeatedly. They are:
Conversation 1: Who am I?
Conversation 2: Who are you?
Conversation 3: Who are we?
Conversation 4: How will we work together?
Conversation 5: What is our task or goal?

Most ‘working together’ situations start by jumping straight to Conversation 5 ‘What is our task or goal?” without covering the foundational work or calibration that comes from the preceding four conversations. It’s been my experience that this can explain why ‘collaborations’ have gone off-the-rails and resulted in unhappy people.

I’ll expand a little on each of these Conversations:

Conversation 1: Who am I
This is an ongoing conversation you have with yourself (potentially aided by reflective practice and preference or personality frameworks) about your character, your abilities and your values. If you don’t have a sense of these things, you will have difficulty participating in the other conversations, where you will need to negotiate and consider your participation with the context of other people. Self-knowledge is the foundation for healthy emotional intelligence – and you’ll need all the EQ you can muster to be truly collaborative.

In addition to knowing your values, is to know what value you seek to be created from the collaborating. Your self-interest is in play, and you need to be able to articulate this to your fellow collaborators.

Conversation 2: Who are you
This is the start of getting to know the other people in your collaborative endeavour. More than just a superficial conversation, you learn about their character, abilities and values to get a sense of their perspective, separate to yours. This is an opportunity to find and honour the diversity of who might be in the group.

It’s a time to learn what value the others want from collaborating and to consider if/how you want to contribute directly or indirectly to creating that with/for them.

Conversation 3: Who are we
When the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ come together, the sum is greater than all the parts – 1 + 1 = 3. There are different dynamics and perspectives that appear by the unique mix of all the individuals present. Give this new group identity opportunity to emerge and be forged. The group will have its own character and values, separate but part of any single individual’s character and values. This is negotiated (formally or informally) by all individuals who will act to ensure a level of constancy with their self-identity.

This is part of the Forming stage of team development (Bruce Tuckman 1965) (Read more about this in a MindTools article.)

This is also the time to agree what value the group is expecting to create by being a group, and the purposes or reason why the group has formed. To be collaborative, is to care about something in common.

This can be a conversation where individuals leave the proposed collaborative endeavour. There may be a conflict in values; there may be recognition that the requisite skill level is not met; there may be insufficient diversity; or there may not be agreement on purpose and value creation.

Conversation 4: How will we work together
This is both a philosophical and functional conversation. Depending on the value you intent to create as a group or the work you will do together – there will be a range of approaches or methods to be considered. Those approaches and methods will have underlying paradigms and values of which the group needs to comprehend and accept. These approaches will also have techniques for which the individuals need skill and knowledge. In addition, there are agreements to be reached about collaborative tools – particularly when collaborative work happens across unit and organisational boundaries.

This can be the time when specific learning and induction begins. Depending on skills and knowledge of individuals in the group, peer-mentoring may be set-up, or specific group learning sessions; or agreement about particular working partnerships to leverage strengths and mitigate weaknesses of each other.

This is also the time to start thinking about roles/positions, relationships and rules. If this collaboration was a game, like rugby, do all the players know how they fit together and work as a cohesive whole and by what rules they are playing? Additional learning/induction with a focus on ‘Being an effective collaborator’ and ‘Being an effective team member ‘may be essential – particularly where there is need to challenge conventional notions of what kind of behaviours are desirable and necessary for true collaboration.

Expect some iterative activity between conversations 4 and 5 as you explore the nature of the work, and how the group decides to respond to specifics. Sometimes you don’t know the answers to conversation 4 until you’ve actually rolled up your sleeves and done something together.

When checking out a potential collaboration, I’ll invest 2-3 hours of collaborative activity to test out the feasibility and desirability of the collaboration. Sometimes this has been the point at which I’ve called it quits as I’ve discovered undeclared expectations or unexamined realities of how much time, effort and attention people truly have to input to the collaboration.

Conversation 5: What is our task or goal
In this conversation it’s time to get deeper into the specifics of the work. This is when objectives, timelines and definitions of success are discussed and agreed; and work assignments are defined and allocated. With a firmer sense of the quantity of work, limits might be set about time and money that is invested by all parties.

Conversations 4 and 5 are ideal for a workshop setting.

To collaborate or not to collaborate

Don’t laugh! This is a truly valid question.

Collaboration isn’t a tactically efficient activity – by this I mean that in the present and immediate future, collaboration takes more time than working alone. But it can be a strategically efficient activity, and by this I mean, that for the near and far future it can save time and money because of mistakes avoided with wiser decision making.

A few years ago I came across a blog titled “Don’t Collaborate?” – I saw the words in the first paragraph about “shooting the sacred cow of collaboration” and yelped with delight! Someone was prepared to publicly argue that there are times when collaboration was not useful (they also outlined situations when collaboration was useful). It resonated with my experiences.

The author listed these contexts as situations when collaboration isn’t useful:
Context 1. Under time constraints
Context 2. Dealing with issues irrelevant to others
Context 3. Working with those who don’t have good communication or collaboration skills
Context 4. Experiencing conflict rooted in divergent values

Contexts 2-4 could mitigated if Conversations 1-4 took place!

Context 1 is about recognising that Collaboration mode may be effective, but it is not necessarily efficient. If you want to do effective Collaboration, you need to invest time in conversations that can appear to be a waste of time if time is measured in terms of short-term productive output, rather than long-term productive outcomes.

Quello offers Team Calibration Workshops that tackle Conversations 3, 4 and 5. Contact us to discuss how we can serve your team.

To collaborate or not to collaborate, that is the question!
It’s nobler to consider all working-together options and knowingly pick what is right for the circumstance. And don’t forget to tell those involved what mode you are working in; that will help avoid discord later on.

In a future article, I’ll write on the mindset and skill set of a great collaborator.


Author: Helen Palmer is Founder and Innovation Facilitator at Quello. She’s been innovating since an attempt to make a new kind of cookie without a recipe when she was nine. She likes to create new ways of doing things, challenging the status quo. She shares her ideas and thoughts to inspire others to make meaningful change in their corner of the world.

[A version of this blog post was originally posted on Questo blog in 2016.]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *