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“Can We Collaborate?”

by David Brock on April 13th, 2012

To be fair to my readers, this is a rant, if you aren’t prepared for my whining, you may want to forego this post.

It seems everything these days has to be a “collaboration.”  Rather selling our customers something, we look to collaborate or partner.  When we want something from someone else, it’s a collaboration.  In establishing a new relationship, we immediately want to collaborate.

I must field at least a dozen emails or phone calls, each week, with someone or some organization that wants to collaborate with my company.  When I respond to the call, I come to learn collaboration generally means:

  • You are in a business that can really help me, it looks like your clients would be great for us, can you please give me leads and introductions to your clients.
  • As you are out talking to people, would you please look for opportunities for us, and where appropriate give us an introduction.
  • I have a great product I want that I think you will want to buy!

Not long ago, out of curiosity, I invested 30 minutes in a call with someone who saw great opportunity in a collaboration.  I looked at the website, I saw absolutely no connection between our organizations–what we did, what they did, our target markets–however, I decided to take the call.  (To be honest, I’d been mulling this post for some time, this call appeared to provide great fodder for the post).

Here’s some analysis of the call:

  • The call lasted 28 minutes.
  • During the call, I spoke a total of just less than 2 minutes.
  • I was able to make 1 statement at the beginning of the call and able to ask 2 questions through the call, and make one observation 3/4 of the way through the call.
  • During the remaining 26 minutes, the caller didn’t ask a single question.
  • The caller spent time talking about what they did, wandered about key issues facing their prospects and why their services were important, and discussed what I could do to help his company (I guess this was the collaboration part).

At the end of the call, I politely thanked the person for the call, wished him luck and hung up.  You can guess what might happen in the “collaboration.”  Not only was this a terrible discussion for collaboration, it was one of the worst sales calls I have experienced.

I wish this call was the exception, unfortunately it isn’t.  Every collaboration email or phone call goes exactly like this.  (The calls don’t last longer than 90 seconds, I guess I had a bit of a sadistic motive in listening to this call for 30 minutes.)

Collaboration is something very different.  Collaboration involves deep alignment of goals, values, priorities and outcomes.  Successful collaboration requires Shared Vision, Shared Values, Shared Risks, Shared Resources, and Shared Rewards.  Each partner must be aligned across these dimensions for collaboration to  succeed.

Collaboration is tough.  Morten Hansen writes of internal collaborations, stating “bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration.”  He goes on to discuss the high failure rate of internal collaborations because the initiatives were not collaboration worthy.  In our research (and others) on external collaborations (partnering), we find 72% fail!

Collaboration can be very powerful, but it has to be right and purposeful to be successful.

If you want to collaborate (at least if you want to collaborate with my company):

  • Make sure it is the BEST way for each of us to achieve our objectives.  Oh by the way, to make this assessment, it’s useful to know what my objectives are.  You have to ask me, you have to explore them with me, you have to develop a relationship with me.  Likewise, I have to do the same with you.
  • Make sure we are aligned in our vision of what we are trying to achieve and our value system.  The former is obvious, the latter is critical because it reflects directly on the customer experience we want to create.  To do this, we have to invest time in each other, we have to develop a relationship, we have to understand each other’s vision, dreams, goals, and value systems.
  • Be clear that we both have to invest and we both have to get a return.  Explore that explicitly; what are you going to invest, what do you expect me to invest–both in resources, people, funding, etc.  Make sure we are aligned in these investments.  Explore what each of us will get as a result of this collaboration.  Does the return meet my objectives?  Does it meet yours?  We don’t know unless we talk about it.
  • Be clear about the risks, are they acceptable to each of us?  Do we understand them?  Do we have a process to manage them?
  • Be clear about what might derail the relationship, talk about these explicitly, talk about the show stoppers, talk about how we will handle conflict, disagreement.
  • Make sure we have a well defined process for managing the collaboration, keeping focused and on target.
  • Make sure it’s important to each of us.  If it’s not important to me, I won’t invest in making it successful–not because I’m a bad guy, but because I focus on what’s important to me.  Likewise, I expect you to behave in a similar way.

If you want to sell me, then sell me.  Don’t mask your intentions in the collaboration cloak.  I know what your job is, I respect it, if it’s something that I think we may be interested in, something that creates value for me, then I welcome your efforts to sell me.  And, if you are successful, I may buy.  If you want to sell me, it’s always useful to know a little about me, what I want to do, what my problems are, so that you can position your solution in a context that means something to me.  You won’t sell me by not asking me a question.  You won’t sell me by not understanding what I do–or presuming you understand what we do without having asked.  You won’t sell me by pitching me.

I’m open to collaboration.  I’m open to being sold.  Make sure you know what you are trying to achieve if you want to engage me.  Be clear about this when you try to engage me.

Consider this—this approach not only works for me, it works for most other people and organizations, as well.  Try the same thing with them.  It might improve results.

Thanks for your patience with my rant.

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  1. Bell Zeidman permalink

    David, your comments don’t sound like “ranting” to me. Rather, they are coherent and thoughtful. To collaborate is to co-labor. The essence of collaboration is to work together toward a common purpose that has buy-in from the stakeholders. Your story clearly illustrates what happens when popular business terms are mis-understood and mis-applied.

    • Bell, thanks for the comment. I thought that’s what collaboration was about—too bad so many mis use the concept. Thanks for joining the discussion. Regards, Dave

  2. Great blog post! I really love the approach to define collaboration based on Morten Hansen’s definition and view points.
    Important to show what collaboration between organizations is all about: sharing before selling – and important to show what’s not going to work, as in every sales conversation: Talking about the own organization only is completely and always misleading. And as your example showed pretty clearly – the customer as well as the collaboration partner define what’s valuable or not.

    • It’s a privilege to have you comment on this post. You’ve written some of my favorite posts on this topic. Thanks Tamara.

  3. Great post, David. Your “tell it like it is” perspective is very refreshing.

    The point that resonates with me in particular is that collaboration is tough. I agree completely – true collaboration is very hard work. It means one overarching goal for both parties.

    Collaboration is also a more mature level of working together than cooperation. Unfortunately for many people, collaboration means mere cooperation. Cooperation is great, but in order for parties to really collaborate, there should be some degree of friction, even disagreement, as they work through the process maturely to attain the outcome (reaching the overarching goal).

    Thanks again for your thoughtful perspective on this topic.

    • Scott, great comment. Your point about collaboration being hard work is right on. Too many people try to take short cuts–which adversely impact the outcomes people hope for. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

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