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8 Dangers of Collaboration

Most of what is written about collaboration is positive. Even hip. Collaboration is championed enthusiastically by the Enterprise 2.0 experts, as well as leading thinkers like Don Tapscott as the crucial approach for the 21st century. Collaboration creates once-elusive “buy-in, or “empowerment”, improves problem solving, increases creativity, is key to innovation at companies like Legos, Pixar, and Intuit. It slashes costs and improves productivity.

So why is collaboration as rare as it is?

The short answer is that collaboration is dangerous. Inherently, collaboration says something is happening outside of one’s immediate control, This, by itself, seems threatening to some, but there are several specific reasons why it appears dangerous:

  1. Not Knowing the Answer. The fundamental premise of collaboration is that you can use it to solve complex problems that are beyond the function of one domain or expertise. That means that each participant needs to be comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity. Most people have built their careers – perhaps even their identity — on being the expert. The feeling of ignorance is incredibly uncomfortable.
  2. Unclear or Uncomfortable Roles. Role and responsibilities in the collaboration space tend not to be hierarchical; they are often fluid, changing from phase to phase of the work. This can be especially hard for senior executives, because it may mean taking off their mantle of being the “chief of answers” and becoming part of the “tribe of doing things.”
  3. Too Much Talking, Not Enough Doing. Collaboration means a shift from thinking big ideas alone, and more into the real-time mess of problem solving with others. Shifting work from “I Tell, They Do” to a “We think together” approach will appear at first to be all about talking. Like we’ve moved to the land of yack, yack, yack. But thinking together closes a gap. By thinking together, people can then act without checking back in because they were there when the decision got made. They’ve already had the debates about all the tradeoffs that actually make something work. But that means organizations spend more time in the messy and time-consuming up-front process of designing solutions that’ll work.
  4. Information (over)sharing. For collaboration to work, information is rarely left in any silo but it is shared and often combined in unexpected ways to reframe problems. For some people, this can mean information overload. For others, who withhold information in order to retain power, the free flow of information is dangerous.
  5. Fear of fighting. Collaborating means dealing with conflicting priorities. “Turf” isn’t always clear. If you avoid conflict, or don’t know how to fight effectively, nothing will happen. Knowing how to debate the tradeoffs between many viable options means knowing how to argue with each other about the business in more open and visible ways. (I’ve already written about Steve Jobs doing this with his team.) Not doing it well, or doing it wrong — or simply losing? Very risky. Very dangerous.
  6. More Work. Often, collaboration happens on top of other work. Participants are already plenty busy with their “day job” and the new project may be especially stressful because of this. Until the problems that any collaboration project is aimed to fix gets solved, a collaboration project can often be overwhelming. Most people describe collaboration in what I call a nice-nice way. If we would just collaborate, then we would do better! But as we’ve already described, collaboration is about the friction of ideas and the forging of new ways of working. That is not easy, or even nice. And it makes new demands on all of us. It means leaders must do more than just tell people what to do. It also means people within the organization have to do more than say, “Hey, that thing is broken” and then delicately walk away.
  7. More Hugs than Decisions. The fear is that if we ask for opinions we must listen to all of them, and that we’ll create watered down “solutions” by committee. In that way, collaboration is often used synonymously with teamwork or democratic exchange. It shouldn’t be. The goal isn’t about feeling good; it is about business results. If people have been heard, have participated in creating solutions and then know why the business picks one option over another, than we can all require what Barbara Kellerman appropriately called Followership. Leaders still need to make tough calls and direct the focus. Without both Leadership with the capital L and Followership with a capital F, all we get is the equivalent of a group hug and not the results the organization needs.
  8. It’s hard to know who to praise and who to blame. Collaborative projects are judged on the outcome, more than the individual efforts than when into them (which are hard to even measure). Leaders have less visibility into who did what. If things go right, they worry about rewarding the wrong people. If things go wrong, they complain about no longer having a single “throat to choke.”

Collaborative work is not right for every organization, or in every case. Research shows it works best for organizations that need to solve problems across different parts of the business, where cross-pollination of ideas improves the output, where speed to market is crucial, and where getting people to co-own the solution will create more velocity in the execution of the work.

According to recent research, collaboration has been proven to have a strong corollary to innovation; .81, according to research commissioned by Google.) The empirical evidence tied to collaborative work and results have also been captured through extensive research.

In most cases, there are ways to manage each of these dangers with a specific “how” that will allow people to step into the unknown, create new solutions, and get to the other side of a problem. That’s the specifics described in my first book, The New How. But, let’s recognize, we can’t manage collaboration well, until we acknowledge that it’s fundamentally dangerous for people.

 

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Regular readers of Yes & Know might recognize that I got asked the question about “is collaboration dangerous” in a videotaped talk about the role of collaboration in innovation. (http://nilofermerchant.com/2011/11/22/who-you-are-is-what-you-make/). I often skip by the dangers because it seems to me there are so many positives, but that’s not fair to anyone. In the Book, I labeled out the different roles during each of the phases to help people navigate change, but I never said, fuzzy roles were a problem. So with this post, I thought if perhaps we could name them, we could manage through them that much better. That’s why I wrote this, and published it first on HBR. You can find the original posting here: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/12/eight_dangers_of_collaboration.html. As always, I ask you to put comments in the source of the original post because that honors the editorial work that co-created this post.

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15 Responses:

  1. Peter. December 2, 2011 at 2:01 am  |  

    Outstanding piece! Love it!! Too many people are jumping on the Collaboration “Group Hug Bandwagon”. Software suppliers love to put the “Collaboration” label on their product in the hope of driving sales.
    Too many people are too excited and in a hurry, forgetting to take the time to figure out what it is they are trying to achieve and how best to go about doing achieving it!!! I look forward to reading more!

    Reply
  2. Peter. December 2, 2011 at 3:33 am  |  

    Under the guise of “Collaboration”, I have seen way too many situations where way too many people get involved in the situation with an end result that decisions take way too long to attain and courses of action are weak. A strong, definitive course of action is often what the situation really required, and that could only have been attained by a small group or maybe even a single individual. Difficult balance to achieve…..right people involved in the appropriate situations.

    Reply
  3. Sahar. December 2, 2011 at 1:03 pm  |  

    Thanks for a very clear post!
    In my own experience Courage plays an important role in linking your points. Where I have seen insufficient courage, meetings tend to get social to avoid facing the real issues. They get diluted and decision making is procrastinated. Then collaboration becomes the scape-goat for reduced effectiveness.
    As you say, collaboration is very much in fashion and it’s good to remind ourselves of the real benefits and what we need to do to avoid its pitfalls!

    Reply
  4. Prashanta C. December 6, 2011 at 12:38 am  |  

    Great post. I couldn’t agree with the title at the first glance as I keep hearing only good things about collaborating during IT projects.

    This indeed was a good eye opener. Anything done in excess is not good and so is collaboration. Most of the points discussed (especially point 3, 6 and 7) are very relevant.

    I really hope organizations understand these side effects of Collaboration and use it only when need it instead of enforcing it in every project. Frankly, I haven’t seen a single instance where any one told, collaborate how much is required, concentrate on getting job done :)

    - Prashant

    Reply
  5. Dreadlocks Marv. January 21, 2012 at 11:38 pm  |  

    Well, I guess it depends on how you handle the collaboration. You might collaberate with others and still remain in control. But yeah, otherwise your points are of course valid.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 23, 2012 at 7:42 pm  |  

      I am not sure if it’s obvious from the post but I’m a big advocate of collaboration in general (having written an entire book about how to leverage collaboration to transform strategy from a word to a way of being), but I find so many people really struggle with it. I wrote this particular post after a Cisco Webinar for their partners and someone wrote in the question, “isn’t collaboration dangerous”. For those of who know how and where to use it, the question seems absurd but I realize we are not addressing the fundamental fears so many people have which is what it feels to let go of that need to control. I found just writing the post helped me have more empathy for that crowd…

      Reply
  6. Bonnie Koenig. January 24, 2012 at 6:25 pm  |  

    An excellent reality check, but not sure I agree with the term ‘dangerous’. Collaboration is challenging, hard, not for everyone, but dangerous? There are many things in this world that are dangerous, but it may be a bit extreme to say that the consequences of a collaborative process are. Great ideas, but perhaps a better term could help to keep focus on the real issues to be addressed.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 29, 2012 at 5:13 pm  |  

      Given that I’ve written an entire book on how to fuel collaboration after 10 years of doing real projects day after day.. I can safely say I have a sense of real issues to be addressed. But someone asked me the question about “is it dangerous” at this talk (http://nilofermerchant.com/2011/11/22/who-you-are-is-what-you-make/) and it formed the headline for that post. It’s clear to me that for some this truly IS dangerous.

      Reply
      • Bonnie Koenig. January 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm  |  

        I did not at all mean to imply that you were not knowledgeable about the benefits of collaboration and the real issues involved. My comment was more about the working definition of and impression given by the word ‘dangerous’. It may just be that we have different definitions and uses for that word. Thank you again for an excellent post.

        Reply
  7. Sushank Saha. February 23, 2012 at 6:49 am  |  

    Great article.

    I like to think of colaborators as being analogous to a “Black ops” team that skirts to break the rules while firmly believeing in the objective and yet works within the Rules of Engagement that are right for the organization in question. The basis of this decision (objective) centric comes from passion wheras the effetiveness is due to individual competence channelling coherently towards a focused outcome.

    Collaboration, i believe, are only as effective as the definition of the problem. The objective is not to build consensus, but to solve the problem.

    Reply

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