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It is undeniable that collaboration is essential for innovation to occur on the scale needed to solve society’s most challenging problems, and achieve our most compelling goals. By creating the conditions for “integrative thinking”, collaboration can negate classic trade-offs and expand the boundaries of what is possible.

But, as I stated in an earlier post, it’s my opinion that collaboration is one of the most misunderstood and misused ideas in business today. I’d like to take a few minutes to unpack this notion, and suggest a few strategies for making sure faux collaboration doesn’t stand in the way of innovation in your organization.

Collaboration is, on one hand, a vision of sharing and improving one another’s ideas to come up with even better – and more innovative – concepts than those we can create in isolation. On the other hand, it’s become an imperative that has been incorporated into formal and informal measures of performance. Yet while the vision depends on openness, excitement, willingness, respectfulness, humour and capability of participants; the imperative encourages only the perception of collaboration, which can be created simply by having more than one person working on a given assignment.

Consequently, the imperative to collaborate can undermine the vision, because in many cases it leads to over-emphasis on the appearance of collaboration without enough attention paid to how people are actually working together and what results are being achieved.

This has resulted in a great deal of “faux collaboration” in which participants come to the table primarily to negotiate; and invitations to the table are often based on job titles rather than genuine shared interests. While there is certainly a legitimate place in business for negotiation, an inherent element of negotiation is trade-offs – the very thing true collaboration is meant to overcome.

Faux collaboration is not only a poor substitute for true collaboration; it can lead to a range of unintended consequences that actually weaken organizations. For example, it can contribute to dysfunctional governance structures by replacing clear accountabilities and authorities in hierarchies with vague decision processes, like committees, that appear collaborative but aren’t. In addition to not fostering transformative innovation, this stymies important day-to-day transactions and corporate strategy, setting the organization back rather than moving it forward.

Prevalence of faux collaboration can also contribute to organizational cultures in which negotiating skills are more highly valued than any of the conditions that would actually foster true collaboration, and the innovation it could foster.

It’s not necessarily wrong to try to build collaboration into an organization’s business model, to implement collaborative governance structures, or to expect employees to behave in a collaborative way. But these imperatives can allow the incentives for faux collaboration to flourish while the conditions needed for true collaboration – and innovation – go untended.

In my experience, there are (at least) two fundamental conditions that determine whether collaboration or negotiation will result. The first is whether participants are obligated to work together, such as a situation in which team members are selected on the basis of job titles or simply availability. While collaboration is possible in situations where participants are required to be present, it is more likely in situations where participants self-select because shared interests are automatic. These interests may be specific to the purpose of the collaboration, such as mutual commitment to the result; or extraneous, such as enjoyment of one another’s company.

When participants are obligated to work together, the second condition for true collaboration comes into play: genuine appreciation of one another’s contributions. This goes beyond simply respecting others’ rights to differ and treating one another politely. Genuinely valuing the contributions of others is not something that can be forced or mandated. It’s a rational and emotional judgment call made by individuals regarding the extent to which they agree with and trust their fellow “collaborators’” opinions, ideas, and competency. If this genuine appreciation isn’t eventually present among the participants, faux collaboration is – in my opinion – almost inevitable.

So what measures can be taken to promote legitimate, innovation-causing, collaboration; and to minimize the risk of faux collaboration? Based on the two conditions I described above, strategies that promote voluntary collaboration and genuine mutual appreciation among members of a team are needed. At the same time, it’s also important to employ non-collaborative methods for the sake of results when faux collaboration rears its head.

Here is my suggested approach. Steps 1 and 3 are intended as strategies for increasing the likelihood of authentic collaboration, and Steps 2 and 4 are strategies for avoiding faux collaboration.

1. Foster “pop-up” collaboration.

As I recently wrote in another post, the pop-up is one of the most iconic ways in which collaboration has yielded innovation in the economy today. While pop-ups are increasingly being mandated, the participants in grass-roots pop-ups are individuals that voluntarily unite to explore and showcase cutting edge and emerging techniques. Done well, pop-ups create experiences that expand consumers’ expectations of what’s possible and acceptable in a given industry.

In the context of today’s post, creating the conditions for pop-ups to thrive in your organization or sector is one possible way to encourage employees to collaborate authentically.

Another possibility builds on the principles of pop-ups: encourage self-forming groups and formalize teams of individuals that have demonstrated the ability to work well together. In this case, the potential for integrative thinking among participants is more important than whether their job titles and resumes create a sense of complete coverage of an issue.

2. Don’t use collaboration as a performance measure.

When people feel pressure to collaborate in order to meet formal or informal performance expectations, they have significant incentive to maintain the appearance of collaboration even when they don’t genuinely value the contributions of other participants. In extreme cases, individuals may even use the appearance of collaboration as cover for actions that actually serve to undermine an initiative.

Instead, measure performance on ability to work with others in a functional way, even if that means using negotiation, command and control, or other methods. Acknowledge that a range of strategies is appropriate – and legitimate – for achieving results, and that collaboration has a specific meaning and purpose that is not suited to all situations.

3. Measure performance based on individuals’ contributions to healthy team development.

Far from letting employees off the hook for collaboration, demand that employees develop skills and working styles that nurture a genuine appreciation of one another’s contributions. Specifically, mandate that employees be trained in and well educated about the processes, principles, and goals of team development. (A reasonably thorough Wikipedia entry on the classic Tuckman model of team development can be found here.) Moreover, hold managers and employees accountable for their contributions to a culture in which team development can occur.

4. When collaboration is critical, but the chemistry just isn’t there, change tack.

Especially when participants are obligated to be at the table, a group of individuals needs a certain amount of time to pass through the stages of team development (storming, norming, etc.) before the likelihood of authentic collaboration can be determined. Friction and disagreement in the initial stages of team formation are not red flags – in fact they can be incredibly positive. But if the group can’t find a way to constructively work through conflict, for example if team members begin to bury their opinions for the sake of politeness, the team has become dysfunctional and will not be able to collaborate.

There is no magic timeframe for this, but at a certain point it will become evident whether the group has the chemistry needed to achieve integrative thinking. At that moment, there are two possible options, other than maintaining the group and permitting faux collaboration to occur. The first is to disband the group and try another combination of individuals. The second is to maintain the group but change the form of working together from collaboration to something more functional.

There are many possible arguments against this proposed approach. “If we don’t demand collaboration, how will we ever get it?” “Can’t we fake it ‘till we make it?” “What if cliques of integrated thinkers emerge, leaving everyone else feeling excluded and unmotivated?” “What if someone’s toes get stepped on?” “We don’t want to send the message that collaboration is optional!”

But let’s be clear: collaboration is not a silver bullet that will result in high-performing organizations in the absence of other, complimentary strategies. It is not (in my opinion) better than negotiation, hierarchy, or other transactional approaches – it is simply different, and done for a specific purpose: to achieve integrated thinking and innovation.

In my view, collaborating less, but collaborating more deliberately and effectively is in no way giving up on the vision, or giving in to what is easy. It’s learning from experience, with the humility to admit when something isn’t working and change course as needed. A collaborative concept, indeed.

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