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Harvard Business Review

Collaboration Is Misunderstood and Overused

Posted on Harvard Business Review: September 1, 2011 9:26 AM

Collaboration is a buzzword these days. Leaders want to get people to think as one company. But managers in different functions or different business units seem surprisingly reluctant to work together. Jealousies, misunderstandings and enmity seem more common than collaboration.

Why does collaboration fail? There are lots of reasons. Collaboration can be time-consuming. It creates risks for the participants. Competing objectives can be hard to resolve. But to my mind the biggest problem is that people confuse collaboration with teamwork.

To understand the difference, think about what a team is. Teams are created when managers need to work closely together to achieve a joint outcome. Their actions are interdependent, but they are fully committed to a single result. They need to reach joint decisions about many aspects of their work, and they will be cautious about taking unilateral action without checking with each other to make sure there are no negative side effects.

Now, so long as the team has someone with the authority to resolve disputes, ensure coordinated action and remove disruptive or incompetent members, teams work well. Team members may dislike each other. They may disagree about important issues. They may argue disruptively. But with a good leader they can still perform.

Collaborators face a different challenge. They will have some shared goals, but they often also have competing goals. Also, the shared goal is usually only a small part of their responsibilities. Unlike a team, collaborators cannot rely on a leader to resolve differences. Unlike a customer-supplier relationship, collaborators cannot walk away from each other, when they disagree.

So a collaborative relationship is necessary when you cannot use a team or a customer-supplier relationship. It is a form of customer-supplier relationship in which the participants have all the difficulties of contracting with each other without the power to walk away if the other party is being unreasonable or insensitive.

For these reasons, my advice is to avoid relying on a collaborative relationship except in the rare cases when a company objective is important enough to warrant some collaborative action but not so important as to warrant a dedicated team. For example, you might want to rely on collaboration if you need to get geographic business units to work with a central product development team or where business units share a sales force or a brand.

In these circumstances, success depends on whether:

  • the participants have committed to work together—collaboration requires emotional engagement;
  • the participants have high respect for each other’s competence on the topic of the collaboration or a natural first-among-equals exists amongst the participants, because of technical knowledge or experience; and
  • the participants have the skills and permission to creatively bargain with each other over costs and benefits.

Before setting up a collaborative relationship, assess whether it is really necessary and whether the conditions for success can be created. And don’t think of it as a permanent solution. You should be looking to transition to an easier form of interaction, such as a team or a customer-supplier relationship. In these forms there are clear mechanisms for resolving disagreements.

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Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Andrew Campbell is a director of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre in England.

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