Why Collaboration Doesn’t Work (And Social Business Won’t Either)

At the heart of most notions of social business is collaboration: helping people work together better with social technologies. This is a reductive definition, social business is much more than that…but that is for another blog post.

I have been thinking a lot recently about collaboration and organisational culture, and why social business will fail if we leave it to the software providers. No piece of software is going to fix a culture that isn’t committed to collaborating.

On a personal level, since we all prize team-work, many people think collaboration comes naturally to them. And when it works well, we think we’re doing a good job naturally. In easy situations, where we all like each other and we’ve collaborated before and it’s been a success this is the case. But to assume this is all an involuntary behaviour is wrong. Tue collaboration is actually hard work and a bit painful at times.

So what happens when collaboration goes bad. And what we can do to fix it?

Great collaboration

A couple of weeks ago Brazilian Terezinha Guilhermina won gold in the womens’ 100m sprint. One of the reasons this was remarkable is she is blind. She ran the race alongside her guide Gilhermay Soares de Santana.

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Seeing Terezinha and Gilhermay storm down the track was awesome, in its most literal sense. To train to win a 100m sprint is an incredible endeavour. To do it blind is unimaginable. To be the guide that trains just as hard to get someone else down that track to win…. that is amazing collaboration.

It reminded me of a quote from Group Genius by Keith Sawyer who describes the Wright brothers who are credited with inventing the first plane. He says:

The Wrights drew on the power of collaboration. They allowed their innovation to unfold from constant conversation and side-by-side work.

In other words great communication and proximity.

Sawyer is a Professor of Education and Psychology at Washington University and has studied creativity and innovation. He’s also a jazz musician.

He believes that true creativity is not a singular process – an individual having a light bulb moment and inventing a car. Rather it is an iterative additive collaborative thing. So he set to work studying the ultimate collaborators: improv artists – in the theatre and jazz bands.

I don’t have time to do his work justice. So I shall play fast and loose with his work and focus on three attributes of great collaboration according to Sawyer and then flip them to see if we can learn anything about why it can be so problematic.

One: “Successful collaborative teams practice deep listening”

Do we spend enough time listening to and observing others? Are we truly open to someone else’s input? This might require subordinating our egos. This requires confidence.

Two: “Team members build on their collaborators’ ideas”

Are we wrongly dogged in pursuing a different agenda? We might need to admit that our idea needs more work or is even wrong. This requires bravery.

Three: “Innovation emerges from the bottom up”

Improv performances are self organising – no director and no script. The best collaborative teams form spontaneously. So if we get hung up about our status or others – “it’s not my job to do that,” or “I’m too senior to play a supporting role” – we will not succeed. This requires flexibility.

Think about culture before software

So if collaboration isn’t effective in your business, before reviewing the many collaboration software options out there, it’s worth considering whether there are five cultural issues that need addressing.

  • Communication – are your teams in regular effective conversation?
  • Proximity – are they working together closely?
  • Confidence – are they self assured enough to listen to others and subordinate their own opinions?
  • Bravery – will they admit they’re wrong?
  • Flexibility – will they make a contribution based on their talents in spite of corporate hierarchies?

Photo credit: wired witch on Flickr

Discuss This Article

Comments: 3

  • Collaboration does work, we at Tracky Inc are a national company and it works for us. We even developed our own software Tracky which we released this year – http://www.tracky.com. It has improved productivity and more important it has reduced the number of emails. It also allows any of us to access documents and comments on various projects easily. So it does work for our team.

  • These are all great points and the individuals in the best collaborations must truly listen to and respect what each of them brings into a collective effort. But there is one thing missing: leadership.

    Someone has to drive the collaboration – they have to keep getting the people to stay connected and communicating in a way that they are LEADING but not really managing what is happening.

    There has to be someone in each collaboration who leads by example – who has the respect of the rest of the team so they actually ACT when that leader calls for action. Otherwise the collaborations fall apart and nothing happens – or they become dormant waiting for someone to pick up the leader’s mantle and get them going again.

  • Jane, I think you make some interesting points. In the larger picture I think many people have gotten lost in this debate, and that is also the wrong debate. I’ve been one of the technology providers you mention for the last 5 years working at Jive and have interacted with hundreds of enterprises, most of the analysts/thought leaders in the space, and many of the other vendors.

    Here is how I have come to frame this (and it doesn’t undermine the points you are making so much as context them):

    1) The new social technologies have enabled new capabilities that previously were simply not possible with the tools we had. Those that could connect these new capabilities to the outcomes they wanted or the pain they had bolted out of the gates immediately (early adopters). There is a lot more to social platforms than simply an activity stream, so the technology choice is a really important one but to your point not the only important one.
    2) The new capabilities enable (and/or require) behavior and subsequent culture change. Without behavior changes that take full advantage of the capabilities then the technology is useless and the endeavor will fail.
    3) The behavior change needs to be focused on a clear outcome or said another way on providing tangible business value. Simply doing something new will not make a business successful. You have to be convinced that the new capabilities and behavior changes have allowed you to do something more cheaply, more quickly, with better quality, or with less human resources.

    I hope more of the debate starts revolving around the triumvirate of technology/behavior/business value and their relationship to each other rather than focusing on any one in a silo.

    Thanks for the article.

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