Collaboration is not a 'soft' option

Collaboration is difficult and involves conflict and debate, but the potential rewards are worth the effort, says Mike Straw.

by Mike Straw
Last Updated: 24 Aug 2015

Collaboration in business is not a new concept, but true partnerships are actually rare. What happens more often is that attempts to collaborate – either between organisations or internally between teams and departments – lead to more of the same thing, only done more efficiently.

You end up with mere cooperation, or even just coordination of efforts. This is because hierarchies often still exist, and at the same time, opinions are watered down in order to avoid conflict. It’s a negotiation and a suppression of tensions, rather than real innovation and change.

Collaboration, however, is about working towards an agreed objective in a way that produces more than could have been produced individually. It’s about reaching a goal through dialogue, open-mindedness and interaction. It’s about having a common vision not just a common process.

The distinction is important. Organisations need to find ways of genuinely collaborating if they are to thrive, because in our rapidly-evolving tech-driven world, no one has the capacity or expertise to do everything themselves anymore.

Apple’s partnership with IBM is a case in point, and would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago. Apple famously attacked IBM in an iconic TV commercial entitled ‘1984’, painting IBM as a big-brother-like figure protecting the status quo while Apple’s Macintosh provided a pathway to freedom. But susbequently they have collaborated on a number of projects, recently announcing 32 MobileFirst enterprise apps.  And IBM has even begun to offer staff the choice between a Mac or PC at their work stations.

It’s also proof that there is a place for conflict and contention in collaboration. It is not about always agreeing with each other, but neither should disagreements be taken personally. It’s about having strong opinions, held lightly – being prepared to argue a point but also to accept the eventual outcome of the debate, without brooding on it.

However, bringing many minds together to work for a mutually beneficial outcome like this is hard. Old hierarchies and pecking orders are deeply ingrained within many organisations. To let go of them and open up to the ideas and opinions of others often doesn’t come naturally.

But in a world where technology and social media have revolutionised how we act and behave, the alternative is to risk irrelevance. Ideas are crowdsourced, projects are crowdfunded – collaboration is everywhere and cannot be ignored.

In my experience, it’s the organisations with the courage and vision to collaborate which are the most successful - and experiencing some conflict and disagreement along the way is all part of the process.

Mike Straw is CEO of the change consultancy Achieve Breakthrough

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