An edited version of this article appeared in Haymarket’s Management Today on Aug 3rd 2020.

One of the irritating things about collaboration is that it’s difficult to achieve. 

The other irritant is the frequency with which this C word gets used. It’s sprayed around so liberally inside organisational life that, if you’re like me, the mention of it sets your teeth on edge. I worked for one CEO who would have sprinkled collaboration on his chips. He dropped the word so often; he must have thought he could speak it into existence.

It’s not just him.

28 of the FTSE 100 claim collaboration –or its first cousin, teamwork – as a corporate value. Back in 2012, IBM’s Global C-Suite Study of 1,709 CEOs found that 75% saw collaboration as the key to future success. Eight years later, as I’m sure you’ve found, whenever the person at the top of an organisation is speaking, the chances are that, in a game of buzz word bingo, ‘collaboration’ will keep the fingers on the buzzers busy.

We’re obsessed.

But are we any good at it?

I believe this ongoing preoccupation is because successful collaboration is elusive. While we can 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.

It’s the same in politics. Many people wish that those in parliament could reach across party lines to solve the big problems – the plan for how we emerge from Corona lockdown would benefit from wider political perspectives. If only politicians were not hemmed in by their ideologies! Here again collaboration is comet like – streaking across the heavens to taunt those below.

I’m looking heavenwards and being taunted too. A report I read claimed collaboration projects fail most of the time.

If only we possessed a managerial sixth sense to identify in advance which collaborations will win. Imagine that. Morale would be stratospheric, interpersonal politics might be reduced to zero AND, once everyone’s palms got too sore to continue high fiving, we’d have more capacity to generate more growth.

That report is a 2015 study involving 106 companies called Why Supply Chain Collaboration Fails: The Socio-structural View of Resistance to Relational Strategies. Snappy! However, it’s a critical read with wider implications than supply chain economics.

A couple of familiar problems stood out:

Tarnished reputation: Managers struggled to assess in advance the true value of any collaboration. The resulting poor return on investment was said to tarnish the reputation of future collaborations.

Organisations ‘invested scarce resource in collaborations that offered no unique value co-creation potential’.

Territoriality: 73% of companies cited 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 evaluate whether or not a decision will benefit the entire company”.

This resonated with me. I recently asked a close colleague to help me with a collaboration project. There was a momentary far-away look in his eyes which seemed to suggest he was mentally grasping for the unobtainable. He then snapped out of his reverie to answer thus:

He’d been burned before.

Me too.

I see collaboration as a cocktail of roughly 3 parts optimism to one-part trepidation.  They can be an exciting opportunity, but the path is strewn with trip hazards related to human nature. Even the slightest problem, the failure for 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. The management energy required to get things back on track may undo any benefits in the collaboration.

For me, the main flashpoint occurs at the intersection of two planes…

When worlds collide – the horizontal versus the vertical

Collaboration is a horizontal occupation – organisations need to work side by side to achieve a single aim.

Each partner also has their day-to-day obligations outside of the partnership – a budget target to achieve or bottom line to protect; I think of this in vertical terms.

It’s where the horizontal and vertical meet that conflict arises. If business in the vertical needs attention, a poor performing quarter or a client crisis, when you need all your people back in the room, then these will take priority. If you need to cut back on resource commitment the other partners may resent that if they have to fill the gap left by you.

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.

Going back to the research, I raised an eyebrow as I read that 73% of companies cited a refusal to share important information between partners as a source of frustration. 63% reported a lack of faith that individuals in one business unit would do anything to benefit another. This is clear siloed thinking writ large. I’ve been guilty of that.  

The fallibility of human nature seems to be the blocker. Fortunately, there’s a way through.

Make a List

I have no qualifications in psychology, but I’m sure most people have enough self-awareness to know their weaknesses and their bad habits. Even if we seldom admit our faults to others, it’s the admission to yourself that counts. From there it’s easy to set them down in list order. There are good reasons why you might do that…

Atul Gawande, in his 2008 best-seller The Checklist Manifesto, showed how simple checklists achieved unpredictable results in his 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 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% to zero in the hospitals tested. Or 43 infections, 8 deaths and $2million dollars.

Another list developed by Gawande for the World Health Organisation, was designed to enshrine collaborative behaviour in the army of medical experts gathered around their patient on the operating table. You’d think that here of all places the collective weight of medical knowledge would be able to pin down collaboration, to stop it streaking about the firmament to help save a life. Yet in a survey of 1000 operating room staff in the US, Israel, Italy, Germany and Switzerland only 10% of anaesthesia residents, 28% of nurses and 39% of anaesthesiologists felt their operations had high levels of teamwork. By contrast; 64% of the surgeons, the operating theatre equivalent of the CEO, reported high levels of teamwork. Gawande reported the sense of teamwork he’d experienced in theatre was more credit to luck. He described the lack of it was due to the complexity of his job, which creates a division of tasks by expertise. This resulted in highly skilled people sticking narrowly to their domain.

Here I see the vertical plane of the personal clashing with the horizontal goals of collaboration. More so when I learned that surgeons walked into the room fully gowned, expecting everyone to be in place, including the patient, unconscious and ready to go. If you are a member of the in-theatre team, the surgeon may not even know your name – a commonplace occurrence. That’s not collaboration, it’s command and control.

It transpires that knowing the names of all the people working across a collaboration project makes the output more effective. Gawande included it in his list; before an incision is made, everyone confirms they have introduced themselves to each other. The team are then prompted to discuss the joint goals of the procedure. The patient is included –the patient must confirmed their identity and the site (on their own body) of the procedure – it’s all about encouraging teamwork.

If something as ordinary as a prompt to a surgeon to wash their hands can have such dramatic impact, then referring to a checklist of your bad habits could be powerful too. Especially if you meditate on it before entering into any collaborative endeavour – it might serve as an internal filter to guard against the emergence of your worst traits. Like those surgeons, you could wash your hands of your flaws to allow those horizontal goals to flourish.

I’m powerless to suggest what should be on your list but if you need a little advice, you might ask anyone who loves or respects you enough to be honest, but suitably diplomatic in keeping the list short…

With the possible exception of any children you might have.

I asked Freddie, one of my kids, to share his opinion on my worst traits. He paused for a moment, mentioned that I was quick to anger, a little tight with the pocket money, then once up and running expanded at length. I asked him to stop at one side of A4.

Having a list is one thing, putting it to work is another – it’s hard to make it habitual. There’s a solution;

Get this book today

Make a Ritual

Many successful people claim a ritual to be the seat of their success. Take Steve Jobs.  Each morning, it’s said he looked in the mirror to ask himself whether or not he was happy with whatever was on his to do list if today were his last day on Earth. If his inner voice answered in the negative over consecutive days, he made a mental note to shake things up.

Gawande’s lists were similar – they allowed people to ritualistically reflect on the task ahead and their role within the team. As he proved, they are effective in improving organisational culture.

I won’t claim my own ritual to be up to par with Jobs or Gawande, but it works for me, because it’s uniquely personal, and a little odd…

A collaboration usually starts with a meeting to kick things off.  I visualise the room where that might take place and then create a mental image of a coat check outside the door. This is a place to hand in various robes representing the less appealing aspects of my character. I find it more effective when I imagine the coat check to be my wife (Katy). Firstly, I remove my coat.  It’s an old favourite, representing my tendency to competitiveness whenever I find myself amongst a group. It has wide shoulders and padded elbows – great for shoving everyone aside. Katy takes the coat and raises an eyebrow, it’s not enough. Under my coat is often a flamboyantly purple, tonic Tuxedo. I call this my ‘it’s all about me’ jacket.  Removing this in my mind’s eye causes me to think about how any gathering of people shouldn’t be unduly influenced by a single personality – how everyone should be able to leave their ego at reception. The exercise enables me to back off on the more thrusting aspects of my personality and let other people’s ideas into the room. These two garments are usually enough, but each meeting of minds is unique, and there may be more garments to remove.

Collaboration in conclusion

Collaboration is a complex beast. It’s an act – something we physically do. It’s also a value and an aspiration. No wonder it’s a tough nut to crack – but there are some nutcrackers in the cutlery draw of our imagination… 

The act of making a shortlist of our shortcomings and ritualising the behaviour you aspire to, could mean better collaboration and less conflict at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical is possible.

Not so much dropping the C-Bomb but catching it.

An edited version of this article featured in Management Today on August 3rd 2020.