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Effective collaboration is the white whale of the digital age

Effective collaboration

Let me start out discussing effective collaboration by giving you a paragraph from a Sloan Management Review (MIT) article called “Why Your Company Needs More Collaboration:”

Digitally advanced companies are more collaborative because they pursue corporate objectives that depend on the effective use of technology, which, in turn, depends on effective collaborations. But increasing collaboration can be fraught: Different functions may exhibit a history of animosity toward one another; individuals with strong egos may not work effectively together; sharing relationships with clients may be anathema for others; and misaligned goals or mistrust can stymie efforts to create shared value with external partners. Overcoming these challenges can mean changing work practices, behavior norms, and metrics of success — in short, adapting essential elements of a company’s culture.

Sound familiar? In a nutshell, this is work to people. You suddenly have to work with some silo you’ve never dealt with, and everything gets tense, political, territorial, and generally bullshit-y. “Craig on this other team doesn’t know how marketing works! We don’t like Craig!” I bet, but Craig is just like the rest of us: trying to hit targets, stave off a “strategic workforce reduction,” and hope his wife still finds him vaguely attractive even though the last time he hit the gym was March 2014. Craig shouldn’t be the bad guy. Effective collaboration would make sure he wasn’t.

But what are the issues towards that, and how could we actually reach effective collaboration in organizations?

Tier 1: Why effective collaboration matters

Short answer is it has to. This is mostly because of tech. Almost every company has to be a tech company to some degree right now, which means people who understand/can code tech need to be involved in discussions they never would have been involved in even 20 years ago. Because “tech people” are often a certain ilk/breed in terms of dress, manner, and interests, it can terrify “more established business types.” We gussy all this up as “professionalism,” but in reality it’s just in-group vs. out-group bullshit. But because everything has to be integrated these days, effective collaboration is important.

So what gets in the way of effective collaboration?

Couple of things off the top of my head:

  • The in-group/out-group stuff from above
  • People don’t really want to collaborate (some research)
  • Misaligned incentive structures so that one-half of the collaborating team is chasing a totally different thing than the other
  • Poor communication (fairly consistent problem)
  • Bad management (ditto as all hell)
  • Unclear priorities (also largely common)
  • People honestly not understanding what other job roles and departments do — and rather than trying to learn, becoming defensive about it instead

That’s a partial list, but it probably covers about 70-80% of the reasons whereby collaboration isn’t effective in companies.

How could we get more effective collaboration?

I’ve written about this a little bit before, and also written about team building and team motivation, which are tied to more effective collaboration. But in a general sense, here’s what you’d need:

  • Aligned incentive structures: People gotta be chasing the same goals, and they need to know what can be achieved individually and as a team if they succeed.
  • An effort to understand the other side/role: This is probably the hardest piece for people, but you need to get out of your own specific way of thinking.
  • Communication: What are the actual goals of this project? What will success appear to look like?
  • A train-runner: Usually this is a project manager or whatever. Most project managers are terrible and gum up the works with 92 unnecessary processes on every deliverable, but a good project manager keeps the trains moving and the sides (different silos trying to collaborate) talking to each other.
  • Priorities: This should be the beginning point of every work project, but obviously that’s not often the case.

The reason I’d claim effective collaboration is the “white whale” of the digital era is that it’s so important, and we write so many articles and books on it, and yet, almost everything we write is complete and total bullshit. Most articles about collaboration essentially just redefine what the word means, without actually discussing how to achieve it. The problem, then: we obsess over something so much, never catch it, and get killed by it. We’re all just Ahab within our offices when it comes to effective collaboration, but we can do better.

Ted Bauer

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