Our organisations operate in a world more complicated and integrated than ever before. This situation creates and will continue to create many challenges. To succeed we need to stress the project management triangle to its limits and always be striving for faster, better and cheaper.
A popular response to this situation is that 'we' need to 'collaborate better'. The 'we' can be any group. It can be a team, a department, a set of departments, an entire business, or even a collection of industry players.
We all recognise that there is a thing we do called 'collaboration' and we need to do it 'better'.
It's a noble intention, it feels right, and it prominently features on global leaders' lists of their top concerns. Furthermore, we've seen how collaborative organisations can produce extraordinary things and deliver a sustainable competitive advantage.
It all begs the question 'what is "collaboration" anyway?'
One definition is:
Collaboration is the practice of working together to create something
It's a simple definition. Maybe even facile-sounding. However, if we dive into the some of these words we uncover a lot of richness.
This phrase suggests activity. We are collectively doing 'something'. The implication is that our 'static responses' aren't enough to foster greater collaboration.
What's a static response? Organisational Structure is a static response. It's a set of reporting lines written on pages and encoded into HR systems. The structure provides context, but collaboration is about how we operate within that structure.
Guiding Principles are a static response. A set of guiding principles isn't enough. The guiding principles capture aspirations. Collaboration is about how we draw from those guiding principles when we're working together.
Look around, and you will see plenty of other examples. Static responses provide context and structure but are not sufficient to help us collaborate better because collaboration isn't a thing we are, it's a thing we do.
There's a lot in here. Firstly, we're creating. We're making together. Our work produces an output of some kind. It also suggests we are going through a process.
What is this something we are making?
The answer might be obvious. If we are working together to design a new engine then the output, the 'something', is that design.
The answer might be slightly more subtle. If we are deciding whether we will release funds to launch a new project, we are making a 'decision'. The decision might be 'yes, proceed', or 'no, do not proceed' or somewhere in between. Whichever it is, it is something we've made by working together.
Maybe the answer is subtler still.We might be working together to 'align on the strategic vision'. Here our output is less tangible. We're making something called 'alignment'. Alignment could mean:
- We've agreed on a set of decisions, or
- We've created a shared understanding of what the strategic vision is asking of each of us
…or another thing entirely.
'Creating something' is an invitation. We are invited to discover the intended output of our working together and make that explicit, even if it doesn't feel like an output.
The final idea is that of 'The practice'. In some ways, this is the most critical part.
Collaboration is something you never 'finish'. You work at it and get better over time. It's similar to learning to play an instrument, or meditating, or learning how to do lay-ups in basketball. Working together once is a collaboration. To be collaborative, you and your organisation need to practice it.
Like all those other activities, if your organisation stops working at collaboration the skills will plateau, and maybe even atrophy.
Collaboration is a cornerstone of working in a more complicated and integrated world. It is a dynamic, making-based practice that holds the promise to unleash your organisation's potential – if you're willing to work at it.