Some Rules for Collaboration

Corporate mantras come and go faster than CEO bonuses in a recession. “Synergy.” Alignment.” “Innovation.” “Sustainability.”

One of today’s favourites continues to be “collaboration.” Just say you’re collaborating and, poof, you’ve got a ticket to the ball. “We collaborate” means not only that we add value and are good for shareholders. It means we’re mysteriously smart. Everyone talks about it. Everyone does it. Everyone talks about doing it.

But what is it? Does anybody even wonder?

I guess it’s about something more than people working together (which started happening some time between the inventions of handshakes and sand castles). Is it when people work together using computers (which presumably is quite a bit different than when they do it without them)? Is it about people working together in large groups – thousands, hundreds of thousands, each adding a brick to a wall? Or is it about working together for healthy subversion (collaboration in the sense of cooperation with the enemy)?

In my shop, there are folks whose job it is to make collaboration happen. They build toys that help people collaborate. Some of them say that all communication between individuals – as long as it’s by electronic means – is collaboration. (Sitting in a room and talking is just “working together,” not collaborating.) I hear them say that social media is collaboration and vice versa. As if every time I toss out an e-opinion or e-recommend something or e-spew my views, I’m somehow collaborating.

In my experience, when followed as a form of corporate liturgy, when professed without a clear view of what it might actually mean, collaboration can easily become a euphemism for “a slow and painful way to water down good ideas.” I’m certainly not saying collaboration is bad. Not by any means. People help each other and share ideas all the time – and most of the time it really does make things better. It’s just that the concept of the "wisdom of the crowds" – that the group is by definition more likely to come up with the right judgment than is the individual – ought not to be adopted as an unquestioned mantra. No, there are times when a person or two can deliver more than a committee, when the eyes of the one magically see deeper than the eyes of the many.

I recently worked with a group of about ten people to draft a set of guidelines for the use of social media in our company. Sure, it’s important. And it takes a lot of thinking – its whole point is to anticipate what is future and unforeseen so that it can be a lasting and durable document. But I have a feeling that less effort was put into drafting and ratifying the U.S. Constitution – which has done a pretty good job of anticipating and enduring. And the Declaration of Independence? One really smart guy did most of the work himself. Then the whole bloody Congress revised and approved it – in TWO DAYS!!! It’s because Jefferson was a genius and the rest of them were pretty damn wise about how to get things done that they’re not still at it today.

Which goes to the heart of my first rule for effective collaboration: Start with something that’s pretty good. If your goal is to produce a document, start with a decent first draft. If it’s to create a new product, start with a solid view of the final outcome. If the group doesn’t have something in front of it – something that’s at least an approximation of what they want to end up with – the members will spend huge amounts of time making lousy progress on something that a single person could have screwed up more quickly.

Here are my other rules for collaboration:

Rule #2 – If you’re collaborating to develop a specific solution rather than just to collect knowledge or ideas, keep the group small. Say four or five people. People in larger groups can sometimes stop thinking.

Rule #3 – Not every thought or idea is a good one. And every minute spent discussing poor ones is wasted time and money. (Yes there's a role for "brainstorming." But that's not collaboration.) Consider using a gong.

Rule #4 – Consensus may be good politics and helpful to careers, but it’s a recipe for mediocrity. The smartest and the best shouldn’t have to agree with what isn’t.

Rule #5 – Collaborate with experts. Ask for credentials up front.

Rule #6 – Don’t admit members after you’ve started. If you do, you’ll spend a lot of time retracing your steps.

Rule #7 – Acknowledge that some people are better at collaborating than others. I’m not sure what makes for a good collaborator. But I do know that those who have a predilection for draining ideas of their kernels of possibility or those who have trouble keeping the whole and its parts together in their minds or those who simply move slowly can end up turning collaboration into a social event, and a painful one at that.


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