Collaboration is a trend whose time has come… and gone. At least you might be forgiven for thinking that reading parts of the business press earlier this year. The Economist’s Schumpeter columnist remarks that “in modern business, collaboration is next to godliness”, before setting out several reasons why the “fashion for collaboration” may not be as benign or productive as it seems. A recent Harvard Business Review article goes further. In an article titled “Collaborative Overload”, three authors note that workplace collaboration has ballooned, but that the costs of collaboration are both under-appreciated and poorly managed.
There is much to appreciate about these arguments, but the writers are tilting at windmills. Collaborating because it is trendy or mandated is clearly silly. Nor should collaboration be an end in itself, as NESTA’s Geoff Mulgan has recently (and rightly) argued. Indeed, our experience is that profound collaboration is only possible when people feel a sense of meaning, purpose and emotion, and bring it to bear in an open and honest way. The problem is often exposing and holding the tension between these things, not managing consensus, having nice meetings or spending all day on Yammer.
The likelihood is that businesses “count the costs” of collaboration because they are not taking it seriously or building readiness to do it properly, not because they are doing too much of it. We are certainly not advocates of any one model for what makes collaboration work; but we know from experience that, when certain pre-conditions are in place, there is better chance that people will realize the benefits of working together against a shared set of goals. This is what we call ‘behaving like a system’, and we are testing this methodology in some of the most difficult environments to support people with the most complex and multiple needs.
Collaboration is patently not the answer to every problem. But it has emerged as a trend because the traditional ways of categorizing what we do – private, public, social; designer, producer, consumer; analogue, digital, personal – are increasingly inadequate means to delivering value for the public and for each other. This feels as true in business as it does in government. Indeed, some of the more celebrated business ideas of recent times – think Mariana Mazzucato’s Entrepreneurial State, Michael Porter’s Shared Value and Peter Senge’s System Thinking – explicitly seek to undermine received wisdom about the ways we understand and manage change in a complex environment.
One wonders whether critiques of collaboration betray a yearning for something simpler – the linear structures of classical management or the relative simplicity of top-down service delivery. This is understandable. Some things are simple and should perhaps remain so. Some silos are there for good reasons. Yet even within this environment, we are still faced with a dilemma. Like it or not, creating value through services is usually a co-production – a relationship between the service user, and the service being delivered. Both sides of this relationship need to be in play. And where this feels more collaborative, the value can be greater: the evolution of online banking and household recycling are examples of this.
The key to collaboration is – in my humble view – humility. It is about exploring, unpacking and improving by working with others. As the writer Ben Ramalingam argues, “we need to move from being people who know the answers, to being people who know what questions to ask”. So as we work with our partners and clients to help them through this process, we also apply these questions to ourselves. Do we consistently practice the collaboration we preach? Do we understand our own creative tensions and means of harnessing them? Not always, no! But we want to try, and it takes continuous effort and reflection to leverage what sociologist Richard Sennett calls “our capacity to co-operate in complex ways”.
One of the key points made in the aforementioned Economist article is that increased focus on collaborating is squeezing out time for what the writer calls ‘deep work’. In his words, “helping people to collaborate is a wonderful thing. Helping them to think is even better”. Maybe so. But there is no necessary zero-sum game at play here, and no diametric opposition between the two. Maybe we should push for a new term: “thoughtful collaboration that gets things done”. It may be true that fashion is temporary, but the value of this kind of collaboration feels much more permanent.
Note: this article cites ‘The Collaboration Curse’ Schumpeter column in The Economist, 23.01.16; Cross, R., Rebele, R. & Grant, A. ‘Collaborative Overload’ in Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2016; Kippin, H. & Billiald, S. (2015) ‘Collaboration Readiness: why it matters, how to do it and where to start’ Collaborate; Ramalingam, B. (2013) ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos’ Oxford University Press, Mulgan, G. (2015) ‘Collaboration and Collective Impact: how can funders, NGOs and governments achieve more together?’, NESTA and Sennett, R. (2013) ‘Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of co-operation’ Penguin Books.
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