Collaboration is not easy. If we start with the premise that collaboration is important, even critical, why does it often fail to emerge or wither on the vine? This is not a rhetorical question. Knowing what can break collaboration is just as important as understanding the prerequisite. Four of the most common ways collaboration gets messed up include:

  • The wrong tool for the wrong problem – Not all situations need collaboration. Simple, common decisions where individuals have the right knowledge and experience are one example where the cost of collaboration overwhelms the benefit. For example, approving access for a new security team member in a defined role does not need a collaborative effort for approval. Split-second decisions are another category that doesn’t call for collaboration. The decision to hit the brakes or run over the bike left in the driveway does not fit the collaborative model.
  • The collaboration mandate – Mandating behavior and expecting everyone to know what is expected and why is a difficult path even in life or death situations. Collaboration is a complex set of behaviors requiring understanding and practice by a group of people to be effective. Telling people to collaborate is tantamount to asking a group of people to play ice hockey if they have never seen skates or ice. People need to understand why collaboration is important, get training, and then have access to the support to make that happen. Many organizations take a strange view of training for items like collaboration that they consider “soft” skills. A few years ago, I was asked whether I could help everyone in a department learn to collaborate. The caveat to the “ask” was a limited amount of training (a single 1-hour training class for team leads) and no post-training support. I declined the offer. Learning to collaborate requires practice and coaching to understand the correct patterns of behavior and to unlearn patterns of behavior that derail collaboration.
  • Team collaboration as an event – I once read an article that suggested that teams set aside time on a weekly basis for collaboration, much akin to a happy hour. I applaud the idea of setting aside time for team members to work together; however, collaboration works best if it is a pattern of behavior that teams can use when the need arises rather than performing on a schedule.
  • Lack of a common goal – Without a common goal, not only is collaboration problematic, you do not have a team but rather a group of related individuals. There will be no impetus or reason to collaborate. Many teams I encounter in organizations, despite finely crafted mission, vision, and goal statements, are not working toward a common goal. For example, a PMO team I encountered last year made up of eleven people, each supporting a specific program or project. Activities and interactions at the project level were driving behavior not the PMOs goals. When collaboration occurred, the project managers were more apt to be collaborating with the people on their day-to-day projects than other members of the PMO.

Collaboration is not magic; you need to learn the behaviors required to make the process work.  You need to have a reason to collaborate, and you need partners in the process.  Trying to force people to collaborate without the right tool is a mess. 

Next: Implement The Prerequisites and Avoid The Pitfalls To Create A Collaborative Environment