Note: This is an environmentally-friendly article - it consists of roughly 85% recycled material, from an article I first posted on LinkedIn back in April 2016. On refreshing that text for this article, I was relieved and encouraged to see that it remains highly relevant in 2018, which is a good sign that what it says is probably worth sharing again with a (hopefully) wider audience.
As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I was one of the tens (now hundreds) of millions of people worldwide who had a Rubik’s Cube but didn’t have a clue how to solve it.
Picking off all the coloured squares and sticking them back on in the right places so that I could proudly display it in my room probably doesn’t count as “solving”.
Collaboration is one of the buzzwords of the early 21st century. It has become a hot topic among early-stage companies, governments, artists, charities, startups and corporate behemoths.
- Arthur Kay, The Guardian, 17 July 2014
Collaboration is at risk of becoming the business Rubik’s Cube of the 21st century.
Too many organisations have seized upon collaboration as a must-have word to proudly display, without understanding how to do it or the principles behind it. (If you fancy a bit of fun, check out this Mission Statement Generator and see how many times a variation on “collaboratively” crops up.)
Worse still, aside from a few hours of alternately fun and frustrating distraction, there is often no truly useful end result.
There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the biggest is a failure to home in on exactly what collaboration is expected to do for you – and a failure to analyse whether or not collaboration is the best way to achieve that.
This article offers a tool to help avoid that pitfall.
the importance of why
How many of these do you recognise?
1. Your organisation says it’s going to adopt a more “collaborative” approach to dealing with its stakeholders – but when push comes to shove, behaviours revert to a more typical master-servant relationship.
2. You identify some great people to collaborate with – but after a few really good meetings, you’re not really any closer to actually doing anything together.
3. Your business literature, training materials and internal meetings are peppered with references to “collaboration”, but when you stop to think about it, you can’t name any actual examples to back up the good intentions.
4. What used to be known simply as “teamwork” in your organisation is now called “collaborative working” or similar, but there’s no obvious difference in what you do.
5. Your organisation’s shiny new strategy holds up collaboration as the thing that’s going to really make the difference, moving you into new markets, smashing your historic turnover records, or otherwise helping you to achieve the previously unachievable – but nowhere does it say what that collaboration will actually be or exactly how it will help.
Chances are, even if you’re fortunate enough to have avoided living through any of the above examples yourself, you’ve seen them elsewhere.
The real shame of this is that it devalues collaboration as a subject and as a tool – people wrongly believe that what they’re doing is collaboration, and when they don’t magically achieve results, they think that collaboration doesn’t work. Cynicism is always easier than self-criticism.
Collaboration for collaboration’s sake is bonkers. It takes time, effort and (sometimes) money to do properly, but unless you do it properly, there’s no point in doing it at all. No sane organisation should be making that sort of resource investment without having some idea about the potential return on that investment.
Yet, when working with people who are – whether cosmetically or truly – keen to collaborate, I am often forced to shine a light on a large pachyderm sharing our space, by asking, “Why?”
That said, I still ask that question even where there seems to be a clear-eyed vision of what we are hoping to get out of the collaborative effort. This is because a structured, refreshed look at how the collaboration can benefit us often reveals additional outcomes, which in turn can help to refocus our priorities or even substantially change the what / how / who of our collaboration.
the 7 c’s of collaboration
Over the years I have come to look at the potential benefits of collaboration under the headings set out below. Whilst other potential benefits doubtless exist (and I’d be interested to know if readers can see any glaring omissions), in my experience the areas below cover the vast majority of possible reasons to collaborate – and, crucially, they give a framework to hang your thinking on.
They won’t all be relevant to every collaboration, but neither should any of them be dismissed out of hand as irrelevant – looking past the obvious is, as I allude to above, often when exciting shifts in our thinking occur.
Cost – by collaborating with others we can often drive down absolute cost or drive up cost-effectiveness. This might, for example, be through achieving economies of scale, or efficiencies in our production processes.
Coherence – collaboration with the right partners enables us to offer our customers, service users and beneficiaries a more joined-up experience, often resulting in time, effort and money savings (for both us and our customers etc) and / or synergistic benefits (where Offering A + Offering B = A + B and C). This in turn makes that joined-up offering more compelling to our customers and more class-defining to our competitors.
Capacity – as touched on above, coming together with others can introduce efficiencies which in turn create additional capacity; separately from (but often alongside) this is the fact that collaboration often brings the ability to take spare “pockets” of capacity which are of little use in isolation and add them together into something more useful and productive. Indeed, this is at the heart of the “Enterprise Partnership” business model pioneered by Xchanging, for example.
Credibility – a close cousin of Coherence in many cases, this is particularly relevant (though not exclusive) to tendering or funding application scenarios, where organisations are able to offer a more convincing, less risky solution. One common example is where an organisation with, say, much-needed niche know-how or a local presence teams with an organisation with a bigger balance sheet or greater production capacity. Separately, these organisations lack a convincing proposition – together, they are credible.
Clout – as Bram Stoker wrote in Dracula, “But we are strong, each in our purpose, and we are all more strong together.” One organisation having a rant about something is a moan; several organisations talking about the same thing is a movement. By collaborating with others, our ability to influence change (or resist change) is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Competition – several of the headings above have already mentioned how collaboration can increase our competitiveness, and it is fairly self-evident that organisations driving benefits through collaboration will have a competitive edge over those who are not (not least because the potential of two or more organisations together will often exceed the potential of one organisation alone – even discounting any synergies there may be). But there is another facet of this heading – collaborating with someone who would otherwise be a competitor is a time-honoured way of neutralising their competitive threat, and whilst the effect on margins and the constraints of competition / anti-trust law cannot be ignored, neither should they automatically stop us thinking about collaboration with competitors.
The 7th “C” is Catalyst – collaboration can be a fantastic way of initiating and / or accelerating change. Much of this comes from the mutual accountability that collaboration creates – in short, if you don’t get your bit done, you’re not just letting yourself down, you’re letting down your collaborative partners, and that alone can be enough to ensure that something that otherwise would have drifted actually happens. On top of this is the infusion of new ideas and energy that can come from having a collaborator’s different perspective. That said, this last benefit comes with a health warning – change for change’s sake is at least as bonkers as collaboration for the sake of it, so this is only a benefit if catalysing the change is itself beneficial.
“Sailing the seven seas” has long been a phrase used to indicate knowledge, experience and skill. It is also a metaphor for completeness – one who has “sailed the seven seas” has sailed all seas.
When embarking on a possible collaboration, organisations could do a lot worse than mapping out how the 7 Cs above relate to them. Doing this will help them to more completely understand why they should (or shouldn’t) collaborate, which in turn will help them to better realise the benefits they want.
© 2016 Al Goodwin
Additional material © 2018 Candid Commercial Limited
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