Collaboration: How, When, and When Not To Do It

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We use the term ‘collaboration’ all the time, by saying something like, “Oh, I just collaborated with Gina on that project.”. More than likely you actually brainstormed with Gina, or shared ideas with Gina. That’s not collaboration. But what if you and Gina share an office, get along well, support each other and work in the same department? Nope, that’s not collaboration either. And if you and Gina are working on the same project, but Gina has all the say in the matter, and you just continually cave, that’s—you guessed it—not collaboration.

To be clear, collaboration is NOT:

  • Being co-located
  • Liking each other
  • Accommodating, giving in, caving in to others
  • Getting along without challenging one another
  • Compromising, splitting the difference

So what is collaboration? The American Management Association’s definition of collaboration is:

Collaboration is a process whereby people connect and work together in an interactive, interdependent, unified, cooperative, and synergistic way to achieve a common goal.

When dissecting this definition, it’s important to notice the key points, which are that collaboration is a set process, with people work together toward a common goal that supercedes personal, individual goals. While collaboration is a good thing, it’s also resource intensive, so it’s important to choose your collaboration projects wisely.

When and When Not to Collaborate

Now that you know what collaboration is and is not, let’s look at when you collaborate and when you don’t.

Collaborate? Yes!

You do want to collaborate when there is a need for:

  • Generating new ideas, products, processes.
  • Planning, coordinating, carting out complex work.
  • Dealing with uncertain, complex, or risky problems.
  • Making major decisions affecting many people.
  • Improving quality, efficiency, or customer service.
  • Learning new insights, perspectives, or methods.
  • Gaining commitment from all affected parties.
  • Dealing with divisive conflict when relationships matter.

Collaborate? Nope.

However, you don’t want to collaborate when:

  • The costs of collaboration exceed the benefits.
  • Individuals have enough information and resources to do the work well by themselves.
  • Tasks are simple, small, or brief.
  • Speedy execution is important.
  • Organizational politics are toxic.
  • Others are taking advantage of you.

The Superordinate Goal

As outlined in the definition, collaboration works best when all participants share an important, valuable goal that transcends all their personal goals. This is known as a superordinate goal. According to the P2P Foundation, a superordinate goal is something that is big enough and compelling enough to aid individuals and groups to overlook personal differences in order to achieve something significantly beyond their current reach, something that cannot be privately held by any of the members.

An example would be a soup company that wants to create a new soup that is healthy and inexpensive. Instead of saying, “We’re going to make another soup flavor.”, they could say “We’re going to keep low-income families healthy.” The former is just another ‘soup of the day’ discussion while the latter is a bigger cause that everyone can rally around.

So how do you collaborate? Here is the 9-step process from the American Management Association:

The 9-Step Process to Collaboration

1. Mindset: Decide to be collaborative and use collaborative behavior
2. Specific Collaborative Event: Choose what to collaborate on
3. Superordinate: Clearly state and refine what needs to be accomplished
4. Identification: Decide who should collaborate with you (team/s, internal and/or external colleagues)
5. Role Responsibility: Assign roles and responsibilities to collaborators
6. Communication: Determine what you will say to different individuals to engage them in the collaborative effort
7. Network: Consistently and Consciously
8. Measure Results: Meet often to assess, analyze, celebrate, and share results
9. Future Thoughts: Conduct a “stop, start, and continue” to refine your processes for the next collaborative initiative

Let’s go into each step in detail:

1. Collaborating is a choice that will use resources including time, money and teams. Pick one project that is worth the effort.

2. Pick one project to collaborate on. It could be within a current project or starting a new project. Define clear objectives and measurements.

3. Define the superordinate goal. Keep it bigger than any one individual.

4. Who should be on your team? Think internally and externally. Ask yourself: Why is it imperative that this person be on the team?

5. What role will each person have? Clearly define the role with the individual. Here are some ideas:

  • Leader
  • Facilitator
  • Recorder
  • Reporter
  • Timekeeper
  • Loyal Opposition/Devil’s Advocate
  • Observer/Evaluator
  • Logistician
  • Liaison to Other Teams

6. Now that you have the outline in your head, it’s time to start communicating your idea. What is your pitch to engage them on this project?

7. Network your idea internally and externally. Let people know what you’re doing and get their feedback.

8. Measure and evaluate the progress with regular milestones. Celebrate milestones along the way.

9. Conduct a team debrief so that you can tweak the process for the next collaborative initiative.

Check out these perfect examples of collaboration. Can you spot the nine steps?

Collaboration Culture” by the BBC – with Gaston Acurio and Jordi Roca Video: “Collaboration Culture” video, there is a 1 min pause around minute 8:16… then a title card that announces part II.

Now, we can’t forget that collaborating has to do with human beings, who can sometimes display challenging behavior—especially in a group! You’ll need to rely on your emotional intelligence and communication skills to help you successfully navigate these group dynamics. However, some people have non-collaborative behavior right out the gate.

For example, if you feel like a team member never believes your ideas are valid, or your research is constantly being questioned—you may be dealing with The Skeptic or The Cynic.

Or maybe one particular person on the team always sees the downside of things. You might hear things like, “We’ll never meet that deadline,” or “I doubt leadership will approve that,” or “That’s just not going to work,” echo through the room. We like to call those Message Killers.

Even that extra, super nice team member can make collaborating hard. When someone says yes to everything and never imposes their opinion, a valuable perspective is lost. Plus, you can tell that they don’t really agree or want to do certain things. In that case, you’re dealing with A Doormat.

Seven People Who Cause Major Problems When Collaborating

But there are more. Here are seven types of personalities that cause major problems during collaborations. Recognize any?

  1. Skeptics and Cynics: not trusting others
  2. Hoarders: not sharing information and resources
  3. Solo Artists: doing it by themselves
  4. Narcissists: me, me, me: first, last, and always
  5. Doormats: giving in quickly, “disease to please”
  6. Message Killers: negativity
  7. Pontificators: think-they-know-it-alls

Dealing with personalities like these in a collaborative situation will take extra effort. I recommend reading these eight quick tips for interpersonal communication and relationship building. The effort will be worth the results!

I’ll leave you today with this question: How do you want to be known as a leader when collaborating? Tell me in the comment section below, send me an email or find me on Twitter. It will be extremely interesting to hear different perspectives!

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