Collaborating is Awful

People who wax poetic about collaboration are lying. It’s God-Awful business and I’m convinced there are only about ten people on the planet who know how to do it. Five of those are actually good at it. Two of those five don’t mind doing it. But, they’ll probably burn out in the middle of their next project; because they’ve either been faking their enthusiasm for months or trying to collaborate with non-collaborators.

Why is this business of collaboration such a drag? Well, let’s unpack that a little and look closer. Most potential collaborators have no idea that they’ve undertaken a collaboration. They’ve been assigned to a project and told to “work with” others. Eyerolling, back-channeling, back-stabbing, responsibility shirking, and passive-aggressive e-mail correspondence ensue. Isn’t “working with” and “collaborating” the same thing? No, not really.

Let’s look at some examples:

Team 1 — Selena, Ian, Daniel, and Ahmed are assigned to work together on a software requirements gathering project. They’ve been given a strict deadline by which a software implementation must be complete. Selena and Ian have worked together for two years and have developed a short-hand style between them, enabling them to work very well together. Selena is an account manager and Ian is a program manager. Daniel works in the IT department and Ahmed is in Finance.

Team 2 — Joni, Ashish, Yun, and David are asked to collaborate on finding a solution to their company’s rising shipping costs on the West Coast. They each come from a different department, all assembled for various skills they possess. The COO assembled them together and said that they would be reviewed on the quality of their solution and the stregnth of their collaboration. They’ve never worked directly with each other, however their departments do have a history of interaction. Joni and Ashish work in procurement, Yun works in Accounts Payable and David works in Logistics. David’s boss and Yun’s boss have a history of not cooperating with each other.

The two teams have both been given assignments. Both have some construct of work history, Team 1 has two team members who’ve worked closely together. Team 2's team has bosses that have history.

Now let’s examine some team dynamics and make some predictions.

Team 1 — Selena and Ian are mad at their boss for assigning Daniel and Ahmed to the project. Selena has already declared that her and Ian work much better as a duo and don’t really think Daniel or Ahmed bring anything to the table. Ian is concerned about meetings becoming too big, things moving slowly, and nothing getting done. Also, Daniel’s first language isn’t English, so at times he can be difficult to understand. Selena has also expressed concern that Ahmed “just doesn’t get it” because he’s never worked with clients. Selena and Ian decide the project will get a much needed boost if they go ahead and start the work without Daniel or Ahmed. They will get the bulk of it done and then share their final draft with the other two prior to completion to see if they want to add anything to it.

Team 2 — While Joni and Ashish are in the same department, they’ve actually never worked directly together. David and Yun have crossed paths, usually cc’d on heated emails between their two departments. The four have to first establish how they are going to work together before setting about getting the work done. Knowing they are being judged on the quality of their solution as well as they collaboration, the four proceed somewhat gingerly toward the kick off meeting — careful not to overstep before roles and responsibilities can be sorted.

Which team stands the best chance of achieving their goal? My money is on Team 2 because they were assigned the task of “Collaboration” in addition to delivering a solution. Sure, Team 1 can hit their deadline, especially if Daniel and Ahmed roll over and let Selena and Ian run the show. However, the likelihood of Selena and Ian accurately capturing all the requirements needed is low, particularly the non-functional and financial inputs. The exclusion of Daniel and Ahmed can prove costly, both from an infrastructure planning and a financial compliance perspective. Also, Daniel and Ahmed probably are now aware of Selena and Ian’s dislike for them and that not likely a positive thing. This is how interdepartmental sabatoge begins.

Team 2's assignment sets the framework and expectation for collaboration. This makes all the difference. People don’t naturally collaborate. Sure, some think they want to… but when it comes down to it, collaboration is extra work and its messy. It requires a multi-sensory approach to interacting with colleagues and a huge dose of empathy. And when done correctly, is incredibly exhausting.

So why bother? Despite the exhaustion, when done correctly, the gifts of collaboration far outweigh all the calories expended in the effort. Departments who once refused to cooperate with one another can be un-log jammed through successful collaboration efforts, and cross-functional collaborative teams can ultimately yield much more robust deliverables than the team that is merely assigned to “work together”. Collaborative solutions are more likely to be bought into by a larger group than those sent from top-down or siloed camps within an organization. The “knowing” and empathy generated through collaboration efforts builds trust across groups, saving time and money on future work-ventures.

So, fellow leaders… keep this in mind the next time you assign a project. Collaboration is a goal, a task, a deliverable, a team mindset and framework. It doesn’t go without saying. If it isn’t said, it doesn’t go! It’s up to you to make it a thing, insist your teams do it, and metric against it as heavily as you would other deliverables. Collaboration actually never gets easier, but you get better at it. It is indeed God-Awful— and you should do it as often as you can!

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