Why is collaboration so hard?

Because collaboration IS hard work.

Each time we initiate a joint venture, or what we call ‘collaboration’ we do so in hope of achieving 1 + 1 = 3 instead of 2. However, most of us end up disappointed, unable to realise the promise of collaboration. And the common reasons we hear, do not go very far from office politics, turf wars… and the like. It is true that office politics and turf wars do make it hard for collaboration to happen, but it does not negate the fact that collaboration, in and of itself, is not as unproblematic as we assume. Even when there is a sincere desire to collaborate and a supportive environment, things can still go very wrong.

Over the course of my life as a student and as a professional, I have worked on uncountable teams, some amazingly collaborative while others were simply dreary. And as I reflected on my experience, sparked by a conversation that I no longer remembered, I came to the realisation that collaboration is hard work, for quite many reasons.

Firstly, initiating a collaboration is akin to asking someone out on a first date; you just might be rejected. Given that nobody likes rejection, even when everybody knows that collaborating is the right thing to do, nobody is likely to make the first move. This is also aggravated by the false belief that only the weak as for help, which many still hold, wrongly equating call for collaboration with call for help. And so we are stuck at an impasse, perhaps until the boss issues an ultimatum.

Secondly collaboration entails bringing together individuals, teams and/or organisations with similar goals and objectives, which imply differences that needed to be worked through. Because ‘similar’ is not ‘same’. This would typically translate into numerous conversations to build common ground and develop consensus on the broad direction as well as the nuts and bolts of this joint venture. And that is a lot of time and effort invested, not only at the initial stage but throughout the course of the entire project, as each milestone check continue to surface differences in work styles, cultures and goals.

This brings me to my third point. To be able to negotiate well and safeguard our interests, we need to know clearly why we want this joint venture and the value we bring to the collaboration. Otherwise, there is no reason for us or the other party(s) to work with each other. Realistically, while we might not be able to work out all the details of a project before we start on it, we certainly should be clear about our direction and goals before entering into any joint venture. That is the upfront investment we need to make. If we are hoping to walk into a joint venture and have another party help us sort out of thoughts, we better think again.

And as with all investment, there is always risk involved and returns not guaranteed. Unlike working in silos, we cede control to each other in a collaboration, and this mutually dependent relationship requires us to trust that the other parties would pull their weight, accept that others might work toward the same goal in different ways and receive questions raised and criticisms made with grace. Truth be told, these often do not come naturally or easy to most of us, and during crunch time, patience and grace are scarce commodities.

Finally, one of the most challenging aspects of collaboration is the effort needed to work together. We often need to cave in to the human tendency for efficiency by masquerading cooperation, i.e. divide-and-conquer as collaboration. The former is preferred because we are in truth still working on our own piece, and have full control over our section. However, when we come together to work on one piece, even the simplest step can lead to heated arguments because we all have a (usually different) opinion about how best to do it. (Refer to the earlier point on differences.) These ‘clashes’ do slow down the work progress.

By now, it might appear that collaboration seems counter-productive, requiring so much more effort and time, when compared to working alone. It also appears to be a rather painful process, so why would anyone in the right mind want to collaborate with anyone? And that, is precisely my point. Each time the management advocates the benefits of collaboration that the organisation reaps, they ignore the costs of collaborations that staff bears. Because we are the ones doing the hard work to make sure the ‘organisation’ indeed reaps the benefits of collaboration.

How then might we get the most our of each attempt to collaborate?

To me, the best we can do is to be prepared. To know clearly what we want out of each joint venture, where is our bottom line and what we are prepared to give in order to achieve a win-win outcome. We also need to be prepared to listen closely to what others have to stay, to read between the lines to arrive at underlying concerns, to learn new ways of doing things that might initially feel uncomfortable. Preparation is often not merely cognitive, it also has a socio-emotional dimension.

Personally, I believe in collaboration and in working hard to make collaborations successful. For the simple reason that my best work has always been born out of such a mode. When people from different disciplines, backgrounds and experiences come together to work toward a common goal, even the most heated arguments can be fun. Because we learn so much from each other; because we push each other to such extremes that we being to generate new inspiration, new ideas and new products. Often the outcomes we produced amaze us.

And once you have had a taste of the benefits of collaboration, you will not want to return to the old ways of working. More importantly, you will realise that all the pain experienced during the process of collaboration is worth it. My wish for you, who is reading this, is to experience such sweetness for yourselves, if you have not already done so.

All the best!

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