Being collaborative or doing collaboration? Fruit beyond the words

Being collaborative or doing collaboration? Fruit beyond the words

Which is more important: being collaborative or doing collaboration? Surely it’s both. However, how often do we confuse them or think they mean the same thing? And does it matter anyway?

When we or others are actively engaged in collaboration it is easily observed and labelled. We clearly step over a line from just doing things by or for ourselves, our team or organisation. We are acting beyond our organisational or personal boundaries. It is action, often announced in structure or policy.

Being collaborative is altogether more subtle. It has its roots in intention and is expressed in values and behaviour. It isn’t always so obvious, but we do know when we experience it, often before we consciously name it. We sense when it is present – and know when it’s not.

Currently collaboration appears to be one of the ‘in’ words. Intuitively we warm to the idea of being able to do more, or better, because we are working together.

The huge aftershocks of the banking crisis, the escalating pressure on public finances and the emergence of the global consumer economy speak to the futility of ‘you in your small corner and I in mine’. It also dethrones the idea of a single heroic leader who can put it all right.

One without the other?

So can we grasp the fruit of working across boundaries by just focussing on one side of the equation or the other?

Doing collaboration feels easier because it is practical, tangible and structured. We know what it looks like on paper. And that’s part of the problem.

It’s easy to assume that we get the sustainable benefits of working together just by requiring that structures are in place. We see this in the burgeoning metrics on partnership working that liberally litter public funding requirements, performance reviews and government policy.

Even at an organisational level there is the danger of assuming that collaboration and collaborative working is the answer to everything. In addition digital tools and structured process can give an illusion of substance. Consequently maybe we are seeing collaboration in name only as people try to navigate all of the things they are trying to work on together.

It ends up being yet another means to an end that we don’t have clearly enough in focus. Unfortunately, doing collaboration without really ‘getting it’ is like putting on an ill-fitting overcoat. When it gets too uncomfortable or hot, we simply take it off.

Collaboration is two-way. If the other party doesn’t experience the underpinning orientation, behaviour and culture of collaboration in us, they will hold back and be more calculating in their contribution. At worst this is a zero sum game, at best merely addition, but never the potential multiplication. It becomes a tactical encounter, minimising losses, and a missed strategic opportunity.

However, there is also a danger in valuing being collaborative as an end in itself. In Give and Take’ Wharton Professor Adam Grant demonstrated the need for mutuality in exchange if it is to sustain long term benefits. There is a point beyond which giving can be unhealthy.

Active blend – how to do both

What happens if we intentionally cultivate being collaborative and establish structures and processes that help us deliver real collaboration? The big prizes on offer are:

  • Trust – in all relationships this is the hardest to grow and easiest to loose. If trust is present we are far more able to stretch and are less risk averse. We are far more likely to see and grasp new possibilities.
  • Synergy – we move from the linear possibilities of shared working – “I will do this, if you do that” – to the chemistry of hybrid thinking, where innovation and transformation are released.
  • Sustainability – genuine collaboration is organic. You can’t unpick it because it leaves a residue of possibilities and potential – the DNA has changed. If cultivated it naturally reproduces and outlasts its originators.

Where to start?

Being really practical I wonder if there are at least three options to explore:

  1. Cultivate being collaborative – probably starting with an honest appraisal of where you are now. Notice your orientation, motivation, behaviours and language (including use of “we” compared to “me”). What would others say about you? Ask them. Intentionally and incrementally develop more collaborative habits.
  2. Find something that you really want to achieve, that is bigger than you/your team/your organisation can do on your own. Stretch your ambitions and use this as the platform for meaningful collaboration. We don’t change by trying, we are changed as we find a better way of thinking and seeing and this replaces old habits and mindsets.
  3. Search out the people with whom you could generate real synergy. Finding people whose culture and orientation you share is a great place to start experimenting with collaboration. It is safer territory. Take deliberate, small steps, honestly learning as you go. ‘The walk of a thousand miles starts with the first step.’

Here’s to the fruitfulness of a more collaborative world.

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