Everywhere I turn recently and I hear people talking about the need to collaborate as if the idea was new. Why has collaboration become the capability organisations must have? And why now? I think I have an inkling.
About 20 years ago a lot was being written about collaboration (this was just the growing snowball crunched together and bowled down a hill by Emery and Trist in 1965). People were getting interested in new organisational forms, talking about flattening organisations and linking firms. The issue of how firms might collaborate arose and we had a flurry of academics and practitioners proposing how it might be done. One of the most cited authors of that time on collaboration is Barbara Gray, who defines collaboration as a, “a process through which parties who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible.”  I like it.
Emery and Trist sparked the idea from an organisational perspective and made the vital observation that collaboration is essential in turbulent times. Gray elaborates and also states that collaboration is most useful when we face complex and seemingly intractable problems. Now think of what we face today in the 21st century. Information volumes are exploding (by one estimation it’s doubling every 4 years ), decisions are faster, things are more connected. No wonder people are screaming for collaboration now. It ‘s a way to progress in today’s complex environment. The problem is that most organisations don’t know how to do it.
Unfortunately, about 10 years ago, we were led up the garden path a bit in our search for collaboration solutions. And I have to admit I was part of the problem because over the years I’ve worked for the large IT corporations like IBM, Oracle and Sybase who promised us new collaboration technologies assuring to deliver a new way of working. Actually, some of the technologies were great stuff and today there are many useful technologies we can use. But the technology alone doesn’t give us collaboration. You would be forgiven for thinking it does. Today if you search on the term ‘collaboration’ the majority of results will point to technology solutions.
Thankfully, back in 1989, Barbara Gray offers us some ideas which take us beyond the technological and in particular she proposes a process describing how collaboration happens. This is important because it gets us thinking about the types of things we can do in an organisation to foster collaboration. Gray’s process has 4 phases (updated more recently from the original three):
- problem setting phase: “getting people to the table”
- negotiation phase: “reaching agreement on what to do”
- implementation phase: “ensuring the agreement is carried out”
- Institutionalisation phase: “building a long-term relationship”
Getting people to the table
Sad as it might sound, when I was in IBM, a common first question I ‘d ask a colleague whom I was seeking a collaboration with was, “so what do you need to achieve this year?” If our objectives were interdependent I knew we had a chance of successfully collaborating. Then we could sit down and really nut out the purpose of our collaboration and make the commitment to work together to deliver something useful. On larger collaborations one or more leaders emerged. The best collaborations were when the leader was the natural selection based on their capabilities rather than the ordained choice based on organisational hierarchy.
Reaching agreement on what to do
The gentle art of conversation is the starting point (personally I disagree with the adversarial approaches, such as debate, as a useful approach to collaboration). Bohm called it dialogue and it involves listening, suspending judgement, being open and honest and working together to build on ideas. These types of conversations then lead to questions of what will be the next actions of the group, how do we divide up the effort, what will good look like and when we deliver our bits? We also need to work out how to reach agreements and ways to solve problems. There are many techniques that are useful at this phase including world cafe, pre-mortems, open space, story-spines, most significant change, and the bevy of ideas in Getting Things Done. It’s also important to agree the ground rules for your group and most importantly decide what will happen when the ground rules are transgressed.
Ensuring the agreement is carried out
The most powerful way to ensure agreements are kept is to get everyone to commit openly and clearly to the whole group but in the full knowledge that the world does change and adaptations will be required. Public commitments need to be revisited on a regular basis not left for months and months only to find that an important commitment has slipped away. Keeping seeking feedback from those you serve through your collaboration and continue to seek good ideas and good practices as a standard way of working.
Building a long-term relationship
The best collaborations result in long-term relationships and I’m certain the strongest relationships go through the hardest times. The difference between and strong relationship and a broken one is what happens when the times are tough. One of the best set of techniques I’ve seen to handle the tough times is in a book called Crucial Conversations. It guides you through what to do when things turn dark and shows how you can keep adding to the pool of meaning as a way to work things out. Essentially these means keep talking and making it safe to talk.
Collaboration is important more than ever because of the nature of the world we live in. The problem, however, is that we not taught collaboration in organisations. It happens through necessity and success is mostly by chance and experience. Organisations wishing to develop a collaboration capability more systematically will need to thinking clearly about the process of collaboration and how they can support that process.
 Gray, Barbara. Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.
 Lyman, Peter, Hal R. Varian, K. Swearingen, P. Charles, N. Good, L.L. Jordan, and J. Pal. “How Much Information 2003?” http://www2.sims.berkeley.edu/research/projects/how-much-info-2003/.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: