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by David Brock on March 16th, 2010

Collaboration is the new buzzword.  It seems everywhere we turn, we read about collaboration–it’s critical to Sales 2.0, Enterprise 2.0 and just about everything else that’s 2.0.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m on the collaboration soapbox as well, but I wish the focus wasn’t just on Shiny New Collaboration Toys. 

I’m attracted to any article that has collaboration in the title, but am often disappointed because it is another article on technology–whether a new telepresence approach (Yes Cisco, your advertising is working), a new software/social networking tool, or something else.  These are interesting and provide new ways to extend the way we collaborate, but seem to gloss over the essence of successful collaboration—or even the fact that collaboration isn’t necessarily the right answer for everything.

I remember when collaboration used to be called teamwork, but I guess that’s not as sexy a term.  Plus we all know about teamwork–it’s really hard.  Collaboration is hard too, but we spend more time talking about shiny new toys than about how to collaborate effectively or whether to collaborate at all.

So let me talk about teamwork.  For great teamwork, we have to align goals and objectives.  We have to have a shared vision about where we are going, how we know when we get there, and why we are going there in the first place.  If the team is aligned in it’s goals and objectives, then chaos results–we create a lot of activity, but it’s aimless.  We get frustrated with each other and tend to stop working as a team.

Teamwork limits our freedom.  We tend not to talk about this, but to be effective on a team, we often have restrictions on what we do and how we do it.  We must work together with others, not just do our own thing.  I was struck by a piece on collaboration by David Byrne (yes, of Talking Heads Fame).  He says that sometimes there is great joy in being limited — it helps to let others participate in making decisions, not to have the responsibility solely to ourselves.

He also raises the point that working together is to expose ourselves to ideas “outside and beyond what one would of come up with oneself…. It gets us outside our own self created boxes.”  Isn’t this one of the points of effective teamwork, that working together we can accomplish so much more than we could be working as individuals?  We can possibly get things done faster.  We can possibly come up with much better ideas, methods and approaches.  We can explore the concept that 2+2 is sometimes more than 4 (God forbid I use another buzzword–synergy).

Teamwork is tough, it’s a double edge sword–for every positive benefit, there can be a negative.  But if we can organize ourselves to overcome the negatives, the results can be tremendous.  As leaders, we build “teams” in our organizations.  But creating effective teams is more than a buzzword.  Morten Hansen has written a great book on this, Collaboration.  It focuses on internal collaborations—teamwork, and when they are effective and when not.  It’s a must read for anyone involved in teamwork.

Teamwork outside of our organizational walls becomes “partnering.”  Partnering is all the rage, it seems to be a higher form of selling  (maybe it removes the stigma of the act of “selling.)  Like teamwork, partnering is very difficult.  It isn’t right for every customer or supplier, it isn’t right for every situation.  Effective partnering requires the same open-mindedness as teamwork.  Effective partnering limits our freedoms, but exposes us to opportunities that we might not otherwise be able to pursue.  No organization can partner with everyone–we can’t afford it, we don’t have the resources to support it, it creates organizational schizophrenia.

Partnering requires new skills, discipline, processses, and methods.  Partnering requires sharing—shared values, vision, risks, resources, and rewards

Teamwork, partnering, collaboration is about working together–differently–to achieve things we can’t do as individually.  The tools are just aids in helping us do this, they are not the ends.

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  1. I agree – “we all know about teamwork–it’s really hard”

    I think there is an expectation that teams form overnight and instantly are able to perform. In some circumstances that might be the case. From my experience most teams need time to really get in sync with each other and have a dedicated leader that understands how to create the ideal environment for collaboration.

    I personally think communication and working in a team is what is going to push us to the next economic level. The culture of me, do it myself and I need to get a head isn’t going to carry us forever. Plus, we need to collaborate across industries to be globally competitive.

    My two cents.

    Excellent post.

    • Lyndi: Thanks for the comments. I absolutely agree, working in teams across organizations is going to be key in pushing to the next economic levels. Learning how to communicate, align ourselves, and work together effectively will be critical. Effective leaders will have to have strong team building and collaboration skills. Too much of what I read about collaboration is about the tools–they don’t create the collaboration, it’s the relationships, processes, methods, and people that do.

      Thanks for your contribution, please keep visiting and commenting! Regards, Dave

  2. Dave,

    Thank you for sharing your thinking. I agree we need to look beyond the labels and understand what partnering, collaboration and teaming really means for those involved. (btw. “collaboration” is probably not a term that will be used widely in some European countries. It has the stigma of ‘working together with the enemy’, referring to WW2).

    As you mention, there is a use for teaming, just as there is a use for individual work. One of the challenges is to recognize when to use what, and how to go about it effectively. I agree that most technological solutions skip by the insight that people make teaming work. Individuals need to be enabled (through tools, processes, infrastructure) as well as properly prepared (through training etc.)

    I do think that there is ‘safety’ in working as a team, but it is not freedom. Each team member has the same responsibility to make sure that the team is operating effectively, towards the stated goal, etc. To abdicate responsibility to ‘team consensus’ however that is defined makes the team weaker, because it implies that you do not necessarily have to contribute in order for the team to move forward. In my opinion that means that the team gradually moves closer to mediocre performance.

    I look forward to future posts in your blog.

    • Joost, thanks for the thoughtful comment! One of the nice things about really effective “teaming” or collaboration is that great teams challenge each other–not succumb, to come up with better solutions and to perform at a higher level. It is a delicate balance of contention, listening, and agreeing on a course of action.

      Your comments are a great addition to the discussion. I look forward to more in the future! Regards, Dave

  3. Collaboration is much more than simply teamwork – it is a mindset. We have been developing the collaboration approach to procurement for some time, and it takes a different mindset to get organisations to open up and really collaborate with their supply chain. Those that do receive massive benefits through improved service delivery and cost management.
    Take a look at our latest White Paper on this very subject – you can download a copy here –



    • Thanks for joining the discussion Tony. Collaboration is misused and misunderstood. I’m always interested in the issues around collaboration in the supply chain. The differing perspectives of the supplier and buyer of what collaboration is, why collaborate, etc. are always quite profound. Regards, Dave

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