We had an organization wide problem to be solved. No one could solve it on their own, so we brought together a select group of leaders from each group and asked them to collaborate in developing creative solutions. What a great idea. We knew the group collectively had different skills, perspectives, and resources to bring to the table. What could go wrong? It was a disaster, producing nothing but conflict and finger pointing. In retrospect, the concept wasn’t wrong, it failed because the participants didn’t understand collaboration.

Collaboration is simply people working together within an organization or sometimes with another organization, to create or produce something. Why would that be a problem?

I think it starts with our individualistic approach. Everyone wants to have control and are wary of others, maybe because of previous bad experiences. Often those who are supposed to be collaborating with each other, see the others as competitors or “the enemy” and worry that someone might gain more from working with them, than they gain in return.

The word collaboration has the concept of working with an enemy within its meaning. While the primary definition (Merriam-Webster) is working together, a secondary part of the definition is, to cooperate with or willingly assist an enemy of one’s country and especially an occupying force. Yes, during the revolutionary war there were individuals who collaborated with the British against our country. I’d like to take the concept of an enemy out of the definition and focus on working together.

In my career, I’ve found four ingredients are needed for successful collaboration.

  1. Clarity of Purpose – Be clear why the group is brought together and their purpose. Without it, people will make up their own reasons, which of course will be wrong. A clear purpose is the best way to get buy in and keep everyone on the same page.
  2. Clarity of LeadershipMake it clear who will lead the process and their level of authority, otherwise, participants will try to take control themselves. The leader doesn’t make all the decisions, that wouldn’t be helpful. Their role is facilitation, so choose someone gifted in it and in asking great questions of the group. The power of collaboration bringing out the gifts of everyone.
  3. Trust – Begin with taking the time for everyone getting to know each other. Not just, name, job title and department, but learning about each other. Don’t rush to get past this and on to “the real work.” Creative work demands everyone trusts each other and it’s hard to trust someone that you don’t really know. Instinctively, human beings size up each new person we meet as a “friend or enemy”, with a natural assumption that they are an enemy (self-protection), at least until we know them.
  4. Win-Win – Seek opportunities for a “win” for everyone. Avoid someone winning at the expense of another losing. Make sure no one feels like they’re being taken advantage of in the process. Share credit for success with everyone. If you want to highlight special individual contributions, do so for everyone.

Collaboration is a powerful tool and should be used more often. Just make sure your recipe includes these ingredients.

Two are better off than one, because together they can work more effectively.  If one of them falls down, the other can help him up. But if someone is alone and falls, it’s just too bad, because there is no one to help him… Two people can resist an attack that would defeat one person alone. A rope made of three cords is hard to break. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10,12 (GNT)

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