Collaborative Working – None of us is as smart as all of us!

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Benjamin Franklin
collaborative working

Collaborating, between both external partners and also internal teams, is a key competency for successful organisations. But it goes wrong at least as often as it goes right, sometimes with horrible consequences.

Take, for example, the case of the 2007 joint venture between Swiss watch manufacture Swatch and the high-end jewellery retailer Tiffany. The aim of the collaboration was for Swatch to manufacture Tiffany branded watches that Tiffany would sell through its distribution outlets. All went well until 2011 when Tiffany decided that the watches were no longer a priority for their business and (according to Swatch) started dragging its feet on making decisions; it also stopped displaying the watches at its flagship 5th Avenue store in New York. The relationship soured and in 2013 Swatch was awarded, through an arbitration action, $449 million in compensation.

So, one thing this story tells us about good collaboration is the need to consider the issue of Residual Control i.e. if something unexpected happens, or circumstances alter, who can initiate a change? E.g. is there a specific ‘break clause’ in the collaboration agreement, or an option for mediation? But, of course, there’s much more to building an effective collaboration than having an ‘escape hatch’ built into the agreement.

Defining collaboration…

Let’s start with a formal definition… Collaborative Working is defined as:
‘People working jointly on an activity or project to achieve a common goal. Especially where this involves co-operation between a number of teams, departments and/or different organisations to achieve an agreed objective.’
It comes from the Latin, ‘collaborare’, meaning ‘to work with.’

Do the stars align?

Clearly a key part of this definition is the need for a ‘common goal’. So the starting point for collaboration to work is that there must be a clear and explicitly stated common interest and an agreed ‘vision’ for what is to be achieved. There must also be good quality goals and concrete measures of success. This clarity of purpose plus clear success criteria is the basis for all the other aspects that need to be in place for collaboration to work.

Naturally that common purpose needs to be genuine and sincerely felt by all involved if good results are to be achieved. Sometimes collaboration occurs for public relations reasons, with one or more of the parties just going through the motions, regarding the collaboration as their ‘least worst option’. In these cases, one of the ‘players’ secretly hope it will fail, stall, or be abandoned. All the while they seem to be collaborating they are actually looking for reasons to pull out while, on the surface of things, acting in a reasonable manner. The main message here is that it’s counterproductive to pressure people into a collaboration – as they usually have more ways of sabotaging things than you have ways of getting them to behave! Thus, a key stage in the collaborative process is to check that all the parties are fully invested in a successful outcome.

On a related point, as we’ve seen above, it’s also vital to make sure there is a mechanism to handle situations were those common interests, once genuinely in sync, for some reason start to diverge. (The issue of ‘residual control’.) So, I don’t suppose many people who are about to get married have the idea in their heads that things will end in divorce but anyone who’s rich and/or famous makes sure they’ve got the prenuptial agreement in place before they tie the knot.

You say potato, I say potata – let’s call the whole thing off

Common interests provide the rationale for the collaboration but alignment of organisational culture is the key driver of success. As the old saying goes, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. So part of having a good alignment is that there are no cultural barriers that might block effective working; or if they are there then they are dealt with.

For example, take the case of the World Wide Fund for nature working with Plus Group (an organisation that certifies forestry management procedures as environmentally sound for products sold by its commercial members e.g. Boots, Sainsbury’s, Body Shop etc.) Unsurprisingly the WWF’s focus was primarily on protecting the environment, while Plus Group goals related to satisfying the business interests of its members e.g. getting cost reductions. Plus Group consequently felt that the WFF people were often ‘unable to appreciate commercial pressures’. The way these tensions were resolved was through ‘cultural mediators’. Essentially the WWF Project Managers built personal networks and ‘alliances’ that enabled them to act as bridges between the environmentalist culture and that of the commercial companies that made up the Plus Group membership. They worked to get a shared vocabulary and frame of reference established such that mutual respect could be established and trust built. So, when contemplating a collaboration, it’s worth thinking about who is going to provide that ‘cultural mediation’.

The importance of a ‘collaboration strategy’

The UK’s National Audit Office has commissioned research into Collaborative Working relationships and how they can drive successful programmes. The research looked at nine collaborative projects involving major companies such as BP, AMEC, and Babcock. All the collaborations were between two separate organisations (not internal collaborations) and identified (unsurprisingly) the need for a clear Vision. They also noted the importance of:

  • Leaders being role models for, and actively championing, working in a collaborative manner e.g. sharing information openly, having regular and timely discussion on all matters that affect the collaboration with no, no-go areas or sacred cows.
  • The usefulness of a “no surprises” and a “no-blame” culture to build the levels of trust that effective collaboration needs if it is to succeed.
  • Making sure that the reward and recognition systems used by both parties were compatible with (i) one another and (ii) a collaborative approach. So it’s clearly destructive if the bonus schemes offered by the various parties to the collaboration pull people in different directions e.g. rewards for getting things done in the shortest possible time Vs. (say) the highest possible standard. For example, consider the case of a major UK bank where the Telephone Banking department wouldn’t suggest that customer’s pop into their local branch to sort out some paperwork, even when this was clearly the simplest and best option for the client, because that customer wouldn’t then count as part of their sales figures. So in a world where bonuses mattered a lot to the monthly take home pay and where those bonuses were dependant on hitting sales targets, collaboration was effectively discouraged.

Actively managing the inevitable conflict

Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes in a Harvard Business Review Article on Collaboration propose that it has never been more important to get people to work together across internal boundaries. They also think that most Executives underestimate the inevitability of conflict in doing this.

To underline this point about likelihood of conflict occurring they list three ‘myths of collaboration’:

  1. Teaming workshops can help build bridges between internal teams: Weiss and Hughes say, ”no”, they don’t work very well as the inter-team conflicts typically go beyond the dynamics of day to day teamwork.
  2. Incentives encourage good behaviour: here they make a more nuanced point, (i) for sure poor incentives will kill the collaboration (ii) and good incentives will work up to a point but won’t be sufficient to sustain the collaboration long term.
  3. There is an optimal way of structuring the company to get good collaboration: again they say “no”, and state that, “no organisation chart that will avoid conflicts and lead to greater collaboration.”

They argue that the disagreements sparked by differences in perspective, competencies, culture, access to information, and strategic focus within a company are (a) Unavoidable (b) Actually generate much of the value that can come from collaboration.

So instead of trying simply to reduce disagreements, senior executives need to embrace conflict and institutionalise mechanisms for managing it. They divide these mechanisms into two main areas:

  • Strategies for managing disagreements at the point of conflict.
    For example, they suggest that a formal ‘conflict resolution’ process is put in place to provide an agreed mechanism for nipping disagreements in the bud. And they suggest that coaching is provided to the protagonists, to help them find common ground.
  • Strategies for managing conflict upon escalation up the management chain. This involves requiring that the people experiencing the conflict engage in a joint escalation process. So no one person can trigger an escalation, they have to involve their colleagues in the process.

And, of course, both processes need to be in place and fully utilised if a collaborative effort is to be a success.

So what’s next?

Think about past collaborations you have been involved in. For the ones that went well think about why they went well. For the ones that went badly think about why they went badly. As you reflect on the two experiences, what does that suggest to you about how you can improve your collaborative efforts going forward?


Want Collaboration?: Accept – and Actively Manage – Conflict
by Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes, Harvard Business Review Article


Have a look at Tim Cook talking about collaboration at Apple (3 minutes long):


If you think that you, or your work team, could benefit from our help then you might like to review our in-house half-day master class on Conflict Management


Or if you want to help develop a leadership team take a look at our Executive Coaching Services

And to end with a quote from the well known entrepreneur…

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself”
Henry Ford