Why collaborations fail

Collaboration needn’t be a dirty word.

by Michael Brown
Last Updated: 03 Aug 2020

One of the irritating things about collaboration is the frequency with which the word gets used in organisational life. 

In 2012, IBM’s Global C-Suite Study of 1,709 CEOs found that 75 per cent saw collaboration as the key to future success. No fewer than 28 of the FTSE 100 now claim collaboration – or its first cousin, teamwork – as a corporate value.

I worked for one CEO who would have sprinkled collaboration on his chips if such a thing were possible. He dropped the word so often he must have thought he could speak it into existence.

I believe this ongoing preoccupation is because successful collaboration is elusive. While we can all see its potential to change our fortunes, it streaks by overhead, cometlike, to remind us that we don’t really understand how to do it.

In 2015, a study with the snappy title Why Supply Chain Collaboration Fails: The Socio-structural View of Resistance to Relational Strategies looked at 106 companies and found that collaboration projects fail most of the time. 

Managers struggled to assess in advance the true value of any collaboration. They therefore “invested scarce resources in collaborations that offered no unique value co-creation potential”, resulting in a poor return on investment that tarnished the reputation of future collaborations.

An important reason for that was excessive territoriality, with 73 per cent of companies citing turf wars as a barrier. Partners could not break out of their siloed mindset to make collaboration happen. 

A telling remark was made by a senior manager: “People are more concerned about who will get the glory or the blame rather than evaluating whether or not a decision will benefit the entire company.” 

This resonated with me. In my sector, specialist businesses often come together at the request of a joint client to work on one integrated marketing campaign.

They can be exciting opportunities, but even the slightest problem, the failure of one partner to meet a deadline for instance, can cause crab-like behaviour in which everyone scuttles back to their silos and may only emerge again to point an accusatory claw at the others. 

Once this happens the management energy required to get things back on track may undo any benefits in the collaboration. 

The problem is that collaboration is a horizontal occupation – organisations are tasked to work side-by-side to achieve a single aim - but at the same time each partner has their own day-to-day, vertical obligations outside of the partnership, such as a budget target to achieve or bottom line to protect. 

It’s where the horizontal and vertical meet that conflict arises. If business in the vertical needs attention - a poor performing quarter or client crisis for example - then these will take priority, but if you cut back on resource commitment the other partners may resent having to fill the gap you left.

I’ve also found that because each partner is tasked with hitting hard targets in their vertical, some are tempted to compete to maximise their share in the partnership to justify the time spent in collaboration – it may become tempting (in the worst cases) to actively undermine other partners, or to make a big deal over any mistake they may make.

I’ve been on the receiving end of that, it hurts. I’ve also driven that sort of behaviour in my teams. Karma.  

A solution: Make a list of your faults

I have no qualifications in psychology, but I’m sure most people have enough self-awareness to know their weaknesses. Even if it’s a rare occurrence to admit those faults to anyone, it’s the admission to yourself that counts. From there, there are good reasons to set them down in list order.

Atul Gawande, in his 2008 best-seller The Checklist Manifesto, showed how simple checklists achieved unpredictable results in his own profession – he’s a surgeon.

At the time there were 230 million operations annually. On average, 7 million people were left disabled and 1 million people died. Gawande nailed it down to human fallibility and attention, especially to the mundane details easily overlooked. 

A five-point list which included the prompt to wash your hands with soap for 30 seconds, clean the patient’s skin with antiseptic, and wear a sterile gown reduced central line (a chest catheter used to administer drugs) infections from 11 per cent to zero in the hospitals tested. Or 43 infections, eight deaths and $2m.

Another list developed by Gawande for the World Health Organisation was designed to enshrine collaborative behaviour around the operating table. Before the first incision is made, everyone confirms they have verbally introduced themselves to each other (this often doesn’t happen).

The team is then prompted to discuss the joint goals of the procedure. The patient is included – the list ensures the patient has confirmed their identity and the site of the procedure – it’s all about encouraging teamwork. 

If something as ordinary as a prompt to a surgeon to wash their hands and introduce themselves can have such dramatic impact, then creating and referring to a mental checklist of your bad habits could be powerful too. 

Especially if you meditate on it in advance of entering into any collaborative endeavour – such an exercise might serve as an internal prompt to guard against the emergence of your less savoury traits, like over-competitiveness and ego. Like those surgeons, you could wash your hands of all your flaws to allow the goals of the horizontal plane to flourish.

This is an edited excerpt from I Don't Agree: Why we can't stop fighting - and how to get great stuff done despite our differences (Harriman House, 2020), by Michael Brown. Management Today readers can use the following code - M2DAY35 - to get a 34% discount on the book at the publisher's website, plus free postage and packaging

Image credit: shapecharge via Getty Images



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