With collaboration, we have a lot to learn—and the clock is ticking

By Mike Cook
Management Developer 

Is there any question in your mind whether there is ample technology available to facilitate profound levels of collaboration in our organizations, especially those with a global reach? There shouldn’t be.

It seems like each week I read about some hot new collaborative technology being announced. If you read past the hype of the opportunity that’s been created—and you should—you’ll find somewhere in the product unveiling, if the creators are authentic, a disclaimer. Here is one that appeared in a 2010 piece on the internal Cisco blog titled, “The Next Generation Collaborative Enterprise,” by Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s chief technology officer.

“Although I’m a technologist at heart, we all know collaboration is not just about the technology…”

As I am reading the piece I am getting excited because I think I am about to witness a technologist getting all human and then this:

“It is about how you apply it to workflows and processes to achieve business value.”

Rats! The obligatory nod to the people in finance, just to make sure what we are talking about here is making money. Suddenly I feel like Charlie Brown following another encounter with Lucy and the dreaded football. I should have known better than to expect a technologist to be honest about the challenges of getting people to welcome, embrace—heck, even accept accountability for deploying something with the kind of potential Padmasree encourages us to believe is offered by this new four word, four letter (NGCE) master piece.

We need to continue to develop these collaborative technologies, and it is well past time to address “the people thing.”

Look, I imagine if I cornered Padmasree after announcing the wonder of collaborative technology I would not have had much trouble getting her to admit that the likelihood of success with the deployment of a tool set like this probably would rival the success of any large scale change initiative. But then she would have stepped back and with a big grin said something like, “Mike I know there is the people thing, but you have to understand, this technology is really, really cool!”

OK Lucy, I see your football!

So guess what? I am now going to say that we need to continue to develop these collaborative technologies, and it is well past time to address “the people thing.”

This past December, a very thorough but brief piece titled “Recognizing Barriers to Collaboration” appeared at FacilitatorU.com offering this provocative working definition of true collaboration, meaning something more than teamwork with a layer of caramel and technology added in.

“Collaboration involves two or more people coming together to share their collective knowledge, experience, and creativity to arrive at a shared understanding or tangible outcome that none of the individuals could have arrived at on their own.”

So by the definition offered here, the purpose of collaboration is the production of something extraordinary where what we get with teamwork might be considered ordinary—good work, but nonetheless ordinary. So the precondition for collaboration is the intent to do something special. That in itself is enough to get my attention.

It also reveals the root of the human challenge. We can produce “good work” through ordinary means—and nobody has to change or give anything up. We are cool with teamwork, mostly.

The barriers to collaboration pointed to in this piece give voice to the reason we most readily settle for the product of teamwork

-The need to recognize and abandon habits and attitudes that impede collaboration. “Eeuw! Give up doing things my way. OK, go on, maybe I can live with this.”

-The need to separate and clarify task from process. “What? This means I have to own up to my attachment to doing things my way. I am beginning to have my doubts.”

-The need to respect and seek out the inputs of everyone involved. “Kumbaya!”

-The need to upgrade overall listening skills, seek understanding first and speak only when it is clear there is a contribution to be made that flows naturally from the central dialogue. “OK, that’s it, so I cannot do my thing? I am pretty sure I don’t want to play.”

-The need to understand that the volume of one’s speaking is not usually the determinant of contribution. Hearing from as many sources as possible is given as the pathway to best resolution.

-The need to get over the personal need to hear your own voice. “Now darn it, that’s just rude!”

-The need to wean ourselves from our addition to consistency and make piece with contradiction and paradox. “OK, so now we are going to abandon logic?”

-The need to accommodate the distractions that will naturally occur and develop attention to the need to continuously refocus the combined efforts. “This I can live with, unless of course I am the distraction and it is of course very important!”

As you read through the list above, allow yourself to get acquainted with the depth of the challenge we face in developing truly collaborative approaches to our work. We have lived so successfully for so long with outcomes that were good enough we are really struggling as a larger culture to see ourselves in decline without a paddle.

Where in your own work group can you see that the level of teamwork you have been willing to settle for is just not going to get you where to need to go? Can you identify from the list above at least two actionable items that may break the inertia in working habits?

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories