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The 'trick' to successful Collaboration: Exclude People!

The 'solution' most people don't want to hear.

"How can I exclude people from collaboration without upsetting them? The pressure is on me to include MORE people, not fewer!”

Posed by a senior risk manager at a recent summit this question goes to the heart of the dilemma of collaboration: we need to do more of it but it often sucks up more time and energy than its worth (A LOT more!)

It was the end of a long day so I pretty much just told the truth:

“If collaboration is not working for you it’s either because you’re not relating to it like you're personally responsible for the outcome, or you're not thinking hard enough about what it's going to take to get there."

Collaboration is like fire; it's a powerful mechanism that can MASSIVELY leverage your influence and results, it can also burn down your house!

The reality is that collaboration is often used as a weasel-way of getting out of being responsible for the outcome or doing the hard thinking.

Being 'collaborative' is a fantastic way of sharing responsibility so no-one is responsible and then saying that you worked hard but had to spend so much time 'collaborating' nothing productive happened.

What we often don't want to face is that to be good at collaboration you have to be more responsible, not less (and often at considerable personal/professional risk!).

If you're going to accept that responsibility and get serious about getting the job done - you'd better get very clear on the people you need/want to work with ... and the ones you don't!

In recent study by the Harvard Business Review study revealed that 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees[1].

If you want to be one of the 3% - 5% and really get stuff done, you’ve got to own the outcome like it’s your personal baby and do ALL the thinking required.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes only one parent to parent!

My lesson in 'dealing with the facts'

A few years back I was responsible for Flood Recovery efforts in a central Victorian town. With extremely limited authority and NO resources at my personal disposal, I helped the community manage their recovery so well we ended up winning both state and national awards for the fastest and most effective economic and social recovery in the country. Why? in large part because I was willing to take a risk and exclude almost all the emergency services agencies from the town for a period of 2 weeks while the community figured out what they wanted their recovery to look like.

When the two weeks were up, the community people had a template for recovery we could all align on and the government people (including me), business and community groups worked together (almost) seamlessly to get the town back on its feet.

If you chose to be responsible for an outcome you need others to help you accomplish (in my case a happy, healthy town) by all means collaborate, just don't forget it's your project and you're 100% responsible for it.

Think deeply about who could help you and who could hinder you and find a way to manage ALL those conversations: the people you want help from AND the ones you don't (at least, not yet).

As C.M. Avery put it in his great recent book: “Teamwork is An Individual Skill”.

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I've been 'collaborating' and training people in how to work well together for nearly 20 years. I've worked in virtually every industry from cut-throat corporates to fluffy not-for-profits (and vice versa!). In all that time I've learnt that if you are willing to be personally responsible for the outcome it can work and if you're not willing to be personally responsible for the outcome it won't.

What to do if asked to 'collaborate'

If you've a project that requires collaboration you need to think deeply (the kind of thinking you'll clean the house to avoid) about these four questions before you start talking to anyone:

  1. Do I really want to be personally responsible for that outcome? If yes:
  2. What is a super-clear, measurable outcome I can pin my name to?
  3. Who do I want 'in-the-tent' to start with (2-3 people, no more)?
  4. What conversation will work to ensure I only have those people (especially, what conversation is required to gently/appropriately exclude people)?

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