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The 4 Myths of Collaboration


What NOT to do


I recently started reading an amazing book called The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People's Economy. The author, Professor Stephanie Kelton outlines and then pulls apart a number of (pernicious) myths that underpin our discussion about government finances and the budget[1] (go HERE to hear her explain it, it’s awesome!).

These myths are many and interlocking, one feeding into and underpinning the logic of the next. Until the foundational myths themselves are explored and unpacked the whole edifice makes perfect sense… that is, until you take out the bottom card….

I have the same experience with collaboration and leadership. We deal with a lot of assumed truths that may not (are not) really as true as they seem.

[1] For those interested, here’s my take: because sovereign governments can essentially (digitally) print money using surplus/deficit as a measure of the economy makes no sense; there is no scarcity. Instead we should use measures that relate to the real productive capacity of the economy: how much we need to produce vs. how much we can ACTUALLY produce within REAL productivity constraints (which include how many factories we have but critically it also – finally – accounts for inputs and externalities like environmental carrying capacity). From this perspective, the most appropriate measures are not surplus/deficit but employment and inflation. This means surplus if a big smokescreen that justifies unnecessary unemployment and obscures the deficits in the real economy – especially environmental (and social) degradation. You can see why I and many others like this approach!

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Myth 1: Collaboration is always good

Anyone who has had to knuckle down and focus on getting something done can attest to the fact that engaging with others can really mess with the timeline!

The classic conundrum of teams is that even though a team can achieve exponentially more than the sum of its parts, getting there can be challenging.

Who hasn't thrown their hands up in frustration and taken over because it's just easier/faster/cheaper to do it yourself than take the time necessary training someone else to do it (and only half as well even then)?

In fact, there are a great many things that are better done by individuals than teams and the same can be said of organisations. Sometimes, working with other organisations is not the most effective approach and you'd be better off biting-the-bullet (and taking the risk) of just doing it yourself.

Knowing which is which is the great art (see HERE for a process I use to help organisations determine what level of engagement is most effective for Implementing Ambitious Strategies)!

Myth 2: Collaboration is free

As the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre put it “Hell is other people”. Collaboration is hard work. It takes time and energy and if it’s you running the budget, you’ll be paying for it somehow.

That's where the rub comes in: 'somehow'. It is so common as to be almost ubiquitous to see managers demand improved collaboration without accounting for the extra work involved.

Collaboration is a task in-and-of-itself. The act of engagement takes time and attention from other tasks. By entertaining a diversity of views and perspectives you will automatically muddy-the-waters and what was simple becomes complex.

Engaging diversity and managing complexity are all good things - but they don't just happen.

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This is a model I developed once to help an Executive get this point (to his credit, he got it straight away).

There can be a great deal of enthusiasm generated by collaborative processes to design what we want to accomplish together. It's a bit like planning a holiday. The possibilities are inspiring and there's a feeling of togetherness... then someone starts to talk about logistics, timing and budget and that beautiful space of possibility withers away.
That's what I call the transition between co-design and co-delivery. We can see the possibilities of collaboration, and we know we can't address complex problems alone, but the reality of working together can be daunting.

There will inevitably be a dip after the co-creation phase completes, grappling with how to implement is by definition challenging, but after that dip there are two paths open to us.

1. The People Dependent Approach

The first is to ask people to collectively 'step-up': to individually and collectively become better collaborators, often (actually invariably) without putting in place robust structures to support that process. What this does is hide the costs of collaboration within existing processes. Especially in people's roles (their Pd's).

This is a bit like asking a brain surgeon (top of her field) to start training as a pole-vaulter... without impacting her focus and capacity as a surgeon. Possible, but a pretty big ask.

What this tends to do is negatively impact people's ability to do their substantive role while also causing confusion and overlapping realms of accountability in the new (collaborative) project.

Sometimes this is unavoidable but I'm really not keen on this approach.

2. The Structure Dependent Approach

"No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."

Much like the Einstein's famous quote, the structures and processes that underpin co-design are insufficient to facilitate co-delivery. In fact, they are completely different. We would never ask an architect to actually build the house. Not because they personally couldn't do it (some can, all could learn), but because the knowledge and structures that underpin both processes (design and build) are completely different.

Implementing a collaborative program requires a fundamentally different approach to what is required to create it in the first place.

As the point where attention shifts from co-design to co-delivery, the skills, structures and processes that will support successful implementation should be consciously identified and, if possible, centralised. This may make no sense if you think of collaboration as an organic network that is fluid and evolves and grows with the challenge. But as Yeats so eloquently put it in 1919:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

For a strong collaborative network to function effectively, the centre must be strong.

Centralise the skills and capacities that pertain directly to collaboration on this project - it is a job unto itself (often several). Even if these people need to add these functions onto their existing roles, make it clear and if necessary, pay for it!

Be transparent about who will have to carry to collaborative burden, and provide the relevant resources accordingly (or just make some unreasonable requests!).

This is the principal the underpins the paradigmatic approach to managing complex issues called Collective Impact (if you've not read this article from Stanford University, I highly recommend it).

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Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

Myth 3: Collaboration is for everyone

The key to effective collaboration is knowing how and when to exclude people.
Of the four myths, I believe this one is the most pernicious. When increased collaboration is identified as a need it is common for people to create an open-space and invite everyone to join the process. This is exactly the wrong approach.

As I wrote about last week, if you are trying to create something new trust is the key (it’s different if you want to work together but you already know what the future looks like ). You have to start small and build from there.

I used to call this Guerrilla Governance, but my mentor at the time told me that wasn’t commercially smart so I dropped it. The idea remains valid and a lot of my coaching is based on this premise: if you can create powerful, transparent and focussed subcultures at the liminal points of overlap between agencies/silos/teams you can use these sub-cultures to progressively colonise the institutions their members are attached to. Mobilised effectively, these sub-cultures can effectively transform whole sectors.

This must be done as a team because it hurts too much doing it alone (I know, I’ve tried).

A lot of my work is finding these people, people willing to embody leadership whatever their role, and bringing them together in a structured environment where they can consciously create their own vision and culture.

Chose the members of this guerrilla team carefully. Attributes matter here, not hierarchy or even skills!

Note. This applies at all levels! I work as much with CEO’s and Managing Directors in this space as I do with Officers and Coordinators. The rules are the same.
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Photo by Headway on Unsplash

Myth 4: Collaboration improves both efficiency and innovation

This one is really interesting and we often get them mixed up. The structures, processes and leadership required to foster innovation and maximise efficiency are almost diametrically opposed to those required to facilitate innovation. It’s not that the same people can’t do both it's just that you can't do both at the same time (or with the same processes).

Attempting to do both is like trying to dance and build a paper plane at the same time. Both innovation and efficiency are important, but you can only focus on one at a time.

In a nut-shell, efficiency aims to improve existing systems and processes whereas innovation aims to transform them.

I've written a lot about this elsewhere so go there if you want to dig into this. and HERE if you want to know more about the different organising principals that support these two goals.

Knowing how to address these four myths and craft teams that can work effectively together brings clarity to tasks, optimises the use of limited resources and fosters innovative solutions.

If you want to know a bit more about the levels of engagement and how to bring these distinctions to the conversation, you can find my primer in Implementing Ambitious Strategies here.
If you've some questions, feel free to find a time to have a quick chat HERE.
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