Why collaboration’s dangerous

Like many corporate buzzwords, collaboration is highly desirable – until it comes time to allocate rewards. Who deserves the lion’s share? Conversely, when things go off the rails, who’s to blame? No wonder most corporations dump it in the too-hard basket, says author and behavioural strategist, Nilofer Merchant. “Collaboration is dangerous,” she says. “Inherently, collaboration says something is happening outside of one’s immediate control.” There are specific reasons why it appears dangerous, Nilofer adds, many centring on people’s discomfort with high degrees of complexity and ambiguity about roles and responsibilities. Paradoxically, to ensure it works well takes more effort up-front, especially around strategising, information-sharing and communication. Collaboration is not right for every organisation or every case. “Research shows it works best for organisations that need to solve problems across different parts of the business,” she says, “where cross-pollination of ideas improves the output, where speed to market is crucial, and where getting people to co-own the solution will create more velocity in the execution of the work.” Harold Jarche advises companies on work redesign and believes that the challenge of collaboration is in its execution: people need to do it to understand at the deepest level. “Everyone is onboard at the onset,” Jarche says. “But after an initial week or two, we notice that nobody is sharing information. They say there’s no time to do it, but this is not a lack of motivation. It’s a lack of skills.” To develop a 21st social business, he says, requires long-term commitment. “Social business is just a different culture,” he adds. “But you cannot directly change it or implement it. Culture is an emergent property of the many practices that happen every day. Change the practices and a new culture will emerge.”

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