You’re In My Sandbox! Why Collaboration Sometimes Doesn’t Work

The Beatles were successful because they collaborated at the right time, with the right music, and the right talent. Space travel is a huge collaborative success story. The United States, Russia, the European Union, and China are not only sharing the same vision, but they are also collaborating on resources and equipment. Integrative software where ISVs, retailers, and Microsoft collaborate on an end-to-end solution to the customer is often a success story. Beware, collaboration doesn’t always work, and it certainly doesn’t always result in positive ROI, satisfied employees, loyal customers, and timely results.

During a round of 25 interviews (group and individual), people were asked, “When has collaboration not worked?” They responded:

“It doesn’t work when it is too difficult and creates extra work.”

“It doesn’t work when the purpose is collaboration, not a solution for a customer, team, or business reason.”

“It doesn’t work if people are shallow and only in the game for their gain.”

“It doesn’t work if you create a sense of ‘losing power’.”

“It doesn’t work when people don’t believe that collaboration is real, and they sense a preconceived notion that the desired collaboration is only lip service.”

“It doesn’t work when people don’t see possibility or are not open to others’ ideas.”

Those are a few of the comments that surfaced, and the general theme was, “I know I should collaborate, but more often than not, it just doesn’t work.”

Ron Friedman, Ph.D. and award-winning social psychologist, states, “Collaboration doesn’t work when there is pressure to conform, and it also promotes laziness.”

Harvard Business Review experts say collaboration doesn’t work when people are fighting for scarce resources, although that is often the time when leadership recommends collaboration.

When field experts, events managers, project managers, and so on are forced to get work done by collaboration across teams, budgets, and strategic priorities, it results in a dismal failure because instead of assigning a team and ownership to a result, everyone is responsible, somebody should get the work done, and no one lays his/her neck on the line. The growing concern for the lack of accountability just might have its root cause in the growing popularity of collaboration.

In my experience, having watched my peers, my team, and myself struggle with getting things done in a matrix organization (which is a code for lack of accountability), collaboration just doesn’t work. Employees experience no sincere or direct interest in the other person’s success, team’s success, or division’s success. Although collaboration sounds like the right thing to do, it would be un-mainstream and somewhat unpopular to say, “No, thank you. I would prefer we not work together but rather go it alone.” I sometimes think that that bold, upfront statement would save lots of people time, energy, and frustration.

Chief Executive Magazine recommends that you avoid collaboration if there is competition among the teams. Teams who have one common goal and a decision maker if a tiebreaker results are a much better method for getting work completed.

When collaboration results in a leadership group of people struggling to make it work, it not only decreases employee satisfaction, but it may also even result in a decline in progress. We often assume that just putting teams together to accomplish a goal is enough. In Education Week, they indicated that, “G_R_O_U_P W_O_R_K doesn’t spell collaboration”. Unmanaged and cavalier recommendations to cross-collaborate often cause people to become more competitive, less apprehensive to compromise, and even willing to fight just to fight, even when both teams may be closer to synthesis than realized.

It sometimes reminds me of the ever-popular idea that “two best friends from high schools should live together as college roommates.” Sometimes it works, but more often than not, it results in a messy friendship breakup. When two teams think they should “live together” on the same project, my guess is the result is the same.

Running the risk of being unpopular, my recommendation is to stop the overt denial that cross-collaboration is the answer. It’s popular, yes, but maybe it is not the answer.

When you do recommend collaboration, do so only when the teams know that at any time they can say “no”, “not working”, and “taking my toys and going home”, because if you don’t, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time deciding who gets to play with the dump truck and who doesn’t, when the problem that really needs addressing is that someone is peeing all over your sandbox.


Read more great articles about collaboration from The Partner Channel Magazine Fall 2015 issue here: 

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