Collaboration with a big C

On a midsummer afternoon in 1957, a church fundraiser altered the course of music history. It was just after 4:00 when a group of teenagers took the stage. Rumour has it the boys were so anxious about playing in front of their neighbours, they downed a few beers before launching their set.

This may explain why several songs into the performance, their lead singer forgot his lyrics, struggled to improvise, and somehow mangled, “Come little darlin’, come and go with me,” into, “Down, down, down, down to the penitentiary.”

Most of the audience was oblivious to the flub. But not everyone. One listener was watching intently, impressed by the band’s antics. His name was Paul McCartney. And he’d just had his first glimpse of John Lennon.

Half a century later, Lennon and McCartney’s collaborative works are credited with launching a new era in music history, one in which it became acceptable to combine genres, play a sitar alongside a violin, and use technology as an instrument. We know the Beatles were creative, but how they got that way remains something of a mystery. So just what were they doing right?

Collaboration in the workplace is when two or more people work together through idea sharing and thinking to achieve a common goal. It’s teamwork operating at a high level.

A lot of social networking doesn’t necessarily equate to a lot of collaboration. People may frequently share information online, but they could still be holding back or more concerned about achieving their own goals or creating a particular image of themselves. Of course, getting to know people through social media can be a useful step towards collaboration; for example, where fairly casual and insignificant initial contacts lead on to offers of help or advice. And those who are comfortable using external social media will be more likely to quickly grasp and embrace the benefits of internal social collaboration tools.

There’s so much information out there about the impressive capabilities of social tools that we might be forgiven for thinking these are a prerequisite for effective internal collaboration.

In fact, there are a number of completely different factors that could be seen as the actual building blocks of strong performance in this area within an organisation:

Belief in a common cause – which requires strong and effectively communicated organisational vision and objectives

Openness to learn – which also means understanding your own strengths, weaknesses and where you could improve. This might seem obvious but unfortunately and, as illustrated by a recent Harvard Business School study, we don’t seem to be very good at self-awareness. This research, which gathered data from over 357,000 people, found an average correlation of .29 between self-evaluations and objective assessments (a correlation of 1.0 would indicate total accuracy). And the correlation was even lower for work-related skills. Over-rating our capabilities and our ability to accomplish tasks within a particular time frame could make us disinclined to collaborate, or have a negative impact on outcomes of team working

Trust – believing that your views will be listened to, considered and that you won’t be ridiculed or otherwise be put at a disadvantage for expressing them.

For collaboration to work over the long term, leaders must invest one-on-one time with the key implementers of the strategy and support them with adequate training and coaching, education is critical for ensuring technical capabilities and modelling collaborative behaviour.

My definition for collaboration is as follows:

Collaboration is working together to create something new in support of a shared vision. The key points are that it is not through individual effort, something new is created, and that the glue is the shared vision.

Coordination is sharing information and resources so that each party can accomplish their part in support of a mutual objective. It is about teamwork in implementation. Not creating something new.

Cooperation is important in networks where individuals exchange relevant information and resources in support of each other’s goals, rather than a shared goal. Something new may be achieved as a result, but it arises from the individual, not from a collective team effort.

All three of these are important. All three are aspects of teamwork. But they are not the same!

We can find examples of effective teamwork in all types of environments; sports, military, and even historically in politics (e.g. Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet). All high performance teams have common characteristics. But depending on their purpose and intent, they might rely more on coordination or cooperation than on collaboration.

When is Collaboration important?
In a network environment, where there is not interdependence, collaboration is not essential to the creative process. Through cooperative sharing of information and resources, creativity emerges through individuals and is hopefully recognized and supported.

However in an interdependent organization, collaboration is the bedrock of creative solutions and innovation.

If Yahoo is to reinvent itself, collaboration will be essential.

Collaboration will not occur by decree

Can collaboration occur at a distance?

Absolutely, if leaders are intentional about building collaborative environments, model collaborative leadership practices, and create opportunities to bring people together for occasional face-to-face conversations.
Collaborative leadership is based on respect, trust and the wise use of power. Leaders must be willing to let go of control. Collaboration does not naturally occur in traditional top-down, control-oriented hierarchical environments.
People need the freedom to exercise their own judgment. There has to be room for experimentation, failure and learning from mistakes. And there needs to be an opportunity for people to think together, valuing each other’s perspective and contributions, in order for creative new ideas to emerge.

Finally, Collaboration is all about achieving the best possible outcomes so it is important, when taking action to improve collaboration, to trap these as they unfold. Examples might be: new groups collaborating leading to the development of an exciting new product idea or service improvement; getting something to market quicker than would previously have been possible; better online collaboration, reducing the need for meetings and conferences, with resulting time and travel cost savings.

Dan Tapscott once said:

“Collaboration is important not just because it’s a better way to learn. The spirit of collaboration is penetrating every institution and all of our lives. So learning to collaborate is part of equipping yourself for effectiveness, problem solving, innovation and life-long learning in an ever-changing networked economy.”

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