Aug 1 2007

Collaboration is Hard, Part II

Collaboration is Hard, Part II

In Part I, I talked about what collaboration is:

partnering with a colleague (either inside or outside of the company) on a project, and through the partnering, sharing knowledge that produces a better outcome than either party could produce on his or her own

and why it’s so important

knowledge sharing as competitive advantage, interdependency as a prerequisite to quality, and gaining productivity through leverage

In Part II, I’ll answer the question I set out to answer originally, which is why is collaboration so hard?  Why does it come up on so many of our development plans year in, year out?  As always, there isn’t an answer, but here are a few of my theories:

  1. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us.  Granted, this is a massive sweeping generalization, but Western culture (or at least American culture) doesn’t seem to put a premium on workplace teaming the way, say Japan does, or even Europe to a lesser extent.  The "rugged individual," to borrow a phrase from our historical past, is a very American phenomenon.  Self-reliance seems to be in our DNA, and the competitive culture that we bring to our workplace is not only to beat out competitive companies to our own, but often to beat out our colleagues to get that next promotion or raise.  The concept that "I win most when we all win" is a hard one for many of us to grasp.  Even in team sports, we celebrate individual achievement and worship heroes as much as we celebrate team championships.
  2. You don’t know what you don’t know.  (with full attribution for that quote to my colleague Anita Absey.)  Since knowledge sharing and learning is at the heart of collaboration, and since collaboration doesn’t come naturally to us, that leads me to my second point.  Even if you are acting in your own self-interest most of the time at work (not that you should act that way), logic would dictate that you would be interested in collaborating just so you can learn more and do a better job in the future.  But the fact that you don’t know what you don’t know might make you far less likely to partner with a colleague on a project since you are committing an investment of your time up front with an uncertain outcome or learning at the end of it.  Only when we have had historical success collaborating with a particular individual — and learned from it and improved ourselves as a result — are we most comfortable going back to the collaboration well in the future.
  3. It’s logistically challenging.  This may sound lame, but collaboration is hard to fit into most of our busy lives.  We all work in increasingly fast-paced environments and in a very fluid and dynamic industry.  Collaboration requires some mechanics such as lining up multiple calendars, multiple goal sets, and compromising on lots of aspects of how you would do a project on your own that present a mental hurdle to us even when we think collaboration might be the right thing to do.  With that hurdle in place, we are only inclined to collaborate when it’s most critical — which doesn’t develop the good habit of collaborating early and often.

I’m sure there are other reasons why Collaboration is Hard, but this is a start.  As I think about it, I will work on a necessary Part III as well here — how to foster collaboration in your organization.