Top 4 Collaboration Pitfalls
Note: This article is made up of more recycled material (from a 2016 LinkedIn article I wrote) than usual – if you’ve already read that article you probably won’t get a lot more out of reading this slight update, but I wanted to bring it to a wider audience, hence re-visiting it here.
what’s stopping you?
In a previous article, I wrote about the main types of benefit that collaboration can drive. I also made the point that collaboration is a hot topic across an extremely wide range of organisation-types and sectors. So there’s lots to play for, and lots of people playing for it. Why, then, are so relatively few collaborations successful – either in getting off the ground, or in delivering the benefits they were set up to realise?
The answer lies substantially in what I have come to call “The 4 Lacks” – these are the main culprits for derailing collaborative ambitions, and knowing about them is key to successful collaborations.
Knowing about The 4 Lacks before setting off on your collaborative journey can obviously help you to avoid their pitfalls.
Even if you’re some way into a collaboration, The 4 Lacks are also useful as a diagnostic tool – if your collaboration is encountering difficulties, ask yourself if any of The 4 Lacks apply – diagnosis is the first step to treatment, after all.
Probably the best way to bring The 4 Lacks to life is a bit of a story, so here goes…
a cautionary tale of collaboration
Once upon a time there were five little pigs. Ready to leave their homes, but mindful of what had happened to some famous ancestors, they decided to pool their resources and together build a house which could withstand any amount of huffing and puffing.
Right from the start they encountered problems.
Getting First Pig to attend any discussions about the house proved to be a real problem (he was too busy reading Animal Farm) and even when he did turn up he arrived late, contributed little, and left early. Needless to say, this irritated the other pigs, but they persevered, eventually accepting that First Pig was just too busy to be part of things.
After a month or so of meetings, Second Pig and Third Pig had a blazing row. Third Pig insisted on a big, open-plan kitchen and entertaining space, but Second Pig was convinced that Third Pig would hog this for himself, despite the fact that all of them would have contributed to it. (Second Pig was also the runt of the litter, and not convinced he could stand up to Third Pig once they were all committed to the build.) Third Pig stormed off, muttering something about people who couldn’t see past the end of their snouts, leaving just three little pigs still keen to collaborate.
Things drifted. And drifted. When the three pigs did meet up, talk was of genial things and there were none of the arguments that had dogged previous meetings, but nothing ever seemed to get decided or done – here they were, six months on, and still no decision on location, architect, budget, basic requirements – or anything really. Exasperated at the lack of progress, Second Pig stopped coming to the meetings (and was last seen heading for a beach in Cuba).
Eventually, more out of impatience than anything else, Fourth Pig took it upon herself to take things in hand and get Fifth Pig to agree to a few things – enough to get their (now substantially down-sized) house built. Fourth Pig and Fifth Pig were delighted – finally, a house of their own!
Unfortunately, their delight didn’t last long. On the night of their house-warming a passing wolf attempted to gatecrash, so the pigs locked the door, resisting the wolf’s entreaties to let him in. Incensed, the wolf lodged an objection with the local planning authority and, after a long and expensive legal struggle, the house was demolished by order of the court. Fourth Pig and Fifth Pig, bankrupted by the battle, were forced to sell their bodies. And their hams, their snouts, their trotters…
from 5 pigs to 4 lacks
What the pigs in the above story experienced probably struck a chord with some of you. (I mean, who hasn’t had problems with gatecrashing wolves?)
These issues aren’t unique to collaborations, but they can be uniquely damaging to them. For most organisations (and many people), true collaboration isn’t really business-as-usual – and when we’re out of our comfort zone, things which might otherwise be little bumps in the road which we can easily navigate have a habit of becoming great big pot-holes which leave us in the ditch, wheels spinning.
I set out below what The 4 Lacks actually are, and why they are so important in the context of collaboration.
lack #1 – lack of time
Collaboration takes time to do properly – and unless you devote all the time needed to do it properly, all the time you do devote is wasted.
Harking back to my previous article, this is another reason to be clear on your reasons for collaborating before embarking on the collaborative journey. Trying to “do collaboration” in all that spare time that none of us have is, of course, doomed to failure – but a collaborative initiative is far less likely to be relegated to a marginalised, spare-time activity if the benefits it could yield are clear and material. When you know there’s something to play for, you’re more likely to turn up and play. Stepping slightly away from the personal motivation side of things, it’s also much easier to justify the investment of time on a business level if you can articulate what the potential return on that investment is.
It’s also worth noting that, as well as being a drag on collaborative progress, lack of time harms collaborative relationships, especially where there is a disparity of time commitment – how do you think First Pig was seen by the other four, much keener pigs?
lack #2 – lack of trust
There’s so much potentially going on under this heading that I could (and probably one day will) write a whole article about it by itself. For now, though, let’s limit ourselves to the two manifestations experienced by our porcine pals in the story above.
To illustrate the first of these, please permit me a brief digression – some psychologists (probably with thin, curly villain-moustaches) get their kicks from having test subjects play something called “The Public Goods Game”. In short, this works so that, each round, players contribute an amount of something to a common pot (in secret); the pot is then doubled by a munificent third party / games-master, and shared back equally with all players regardless of how much they originally put in. This means that players who put in less end up better off than those who put in more.
Over time, something interesting reliably happens – more and more players put in zero, until the game eventually grinds to a halt. This is so, even though the logical thing is for everyone to donate as much as possible so that they can get as much as possible back.
Why does it happen? Because nobody wants to be the fully-committing idiot whose contribution is benefitting the less committed. If you think about it, evolution may have even made us this way.
This is part of what was going on between Second Pig and Third Pig – Second Pig was worried that Third Pig would reap all the benefit of their collective contribution to building the dream party-pad. This psychological phenomenon (which is all too often going on subconsciously) is, perhaps, the single biggest derailer of collaborations out there.
The second manifestation of lack of trust shown by Second Pig was one which is easier to spot – simply put, it amounts to fear of being the little guy. In business collaborations this crops up in all sorts of ways – fear of being swallowed up by a larger collaborative partner, of losing our culture, or even of not being able to bring the same-sized guns to any shooting match if things go sour.
The thing about trust is that it famously takes time to build and seconds to destroy (or, as writer and critic John Leonard had it: “It takes a long time to grow an old friend”). In some ways, then, lack of trust can also be seen as a further manifestation of lack of time.
lack #3 – lack of leadership
Too many people mistake collaboration for an effort amongst equals. Even if this were true (and it so rarely is – when did you last see two organisations which were truly equal in terms of size, reach, abilities, results etc?), it would not necessarily follow that nobody should lead.
Every collaboration needs leadership to succeed, and collaborations which shy away from appointing leaders out of a misguided fear that this is antithetical to the very essence of collaboration are setting themselves up for failure (and are probably also suffering from insufficient mutual trust).
I don’t mean to say that every collaboration needs The Leader (although sometimes this will be appropriate) – simply that collaborations need leadership. This can be diffuse – for example, divided by subject matter, or rotational in nature – but it must exist.
Without leadership, collaborations are engine-less ships, carried about on external currents. Not only does this stop a collaboration from delivering on its promised benefits, it also plays a major role in leaching away its participants’ willingness to commit time and / or to trust each other.
Of course, nothing sits in a vacuum, and lack of leadership can also be driven by a lack of time to commit to taking on leadership responsibilities, and by the next and final Lack…
lack #4 – lack of knowledge
Poor Fourth Pig and Fifth Pig got caught out because they didn’t know about planning law. In that case, the collaboration went ahead (eventually) but went wrong because something hadn’t been properly addressed. Perhaps more common is the scenario where collaborations fail to get going in the first place because its participants don’t know enough (or – rightly or wrongly – fear they don’t know enough) to take those all-important first steps.
Even if collaborators have established a clear-eyed vision of why they are collaborating, on what, and with whom, all too often they get stuck on the how – how to actually do this thing called “collaboration”?
‘Do I need to set up a new company? A formal legal agreement? What kind? I’d better talk to a lawyer. To an accountant. Woah, this is getting expensive. Let’s just drop the whole idea.’
licking the lacks
So far, so negative. Yes, there is value in knowing the main things which can derail collaboration, but if you don’t know what to do about them then it’s about as useful as being diagnosed with an incurable disease.
Fortunately, there are actually things that can be done about The 4 Lacks – simple, practical things that really work.
In our case, we’ve distilled those things into a proven and powerful 5-step model aimed at overcoming The 4 Lacks and setting any collaboration – any size, any subject matter, any purpose – on the right track (or back on the right track) for success.
If you're curious, feel free to drop us a line to find out more - no strings attached.
© 2016 Al Goodwin
Additional material © 2018 Candid Commercial Limited