Friday, May 1, 2009

How Collaboration Falls Short

Yesterday I attended Green Business Camp in South San Francisco. My friend Raines Cohen got me a ticket (it was sold out), and I was curious what interest existed among green entrepreneurs for enhancing work place social skills. I figure that "green" implies sustainable, and sustainable has a social component. Were my fellow campers thinking along those same lines?

After a keynote talk by Paul Hawken (his best line was describing himself as a "change slut") who emphasized how much our future will be impacted by jumps in energy costs that are outside our frame of reference—he called it "civilizational" change, to distinguish it from the cyclical change that most economists think in terms of. To my delight, he also emphasized the increasing need for collaborative savvy.

So when I attended the first breakout session—on the topic of teamwork, partnering, and cooperation, I was curious to see what the pressing needs were. Though I had my chance to pitch the relevance of what's being learned about cooperative dynamics in intentional communities, there wasn't much grab in the room. Instead, there was a lot of attention to why collaboration—for all its sex appeal—wasn't easy to pull off. (There was also frustration expressed about how there was much more talk about collaboration than there was actual collbarating—which phenomenon we then promptly recapitulated by spending the bulk of our 45 minutes cataloguing shortcomings, and marveling at how similar our stories were.)

In any event, I listened to the laments and figured it would be instructive to round them up in a single list. I came up with nine:

1. Shallow agreement
This is where people feel good about reaching an agreement to collaborate, but the basis for it hasn't been fully explored and the buy-in is weak. Typically people are "making nice" and avoiding the hard questions. The fragile seedling withers from neglect.

2. Unclear implementation
The collaborators didn't go far enough to create a solid plan for who would do what, when, and with what resources. At worst, there may be no implementation plan at all. However, a vague or incomplete plan may be enough to strangle an initiative.

3. No accountability
When different entities are attempting to collaborate, it can often be tricky navigating who will monitor progress and handle task follow-up. This tends to be
viewed as a position of authority and coalitions may inappropriately shy away from that assignment for fear of establishing a hierarchy among "equals." Lacking clarity about who's moving things along, it tends to be that no one does and momentum dies.

4. Poor leadership models
This is a continuation of the previous point, broadened beyond task monitoring. We need leaders to motivate, organize, and think strategically. Yet we've not done a good job of coming up with good models for working in a healthy way with power and leadership in cooperative situations. Mostly we look at current situations through the lens of prior damage and are far more critical of leaders than supportive. Leader bashing in cooperative groups is an art form, yet we have to learn to stop eating our own if we're going to create viable alternatives to traditional business models.

5. Wrong people at the table
For coalitions to be effective, it's important that all the key stakeholders are at the table. You can run into problems with this in two ways: either by leaving out one or more key stakeholders, or by the right groups sending the wrong people—those who either don't grasp the issues and or don't have the authority to commit their group to agreements and actions. This gets to be a chicken-and-egg dilemma in that key people tend to be busy people who don't have time to attend meetings that aren't going to get things done. However, if they don't attend a meeting underling wiht no authority, it may guarantee that the outcome will be weak.

6. Not carefully vetting implementors
One of the keys to effectiveness is having the right people doing the right jobs. Thus, even if there's solid agreement and a good implementation plan, coalitions can shoot themselves in the foot by being sloppy about who's assigned what tasks. Often, groups do little more than ask for volunteers and happily accpet whoever puts their hand in the air. I think of this as Implementation Roulette, and it's a poor way to run a railroad. If the task is important and takes certain skills, take the time to identify the qualities needed and evaluate candidates deliberately.

7. Process too slow
Meetings need to produce results. If it takes too long to reach agreement, or there's no identifiable product from each investment of time, people lose heart and put their attention elsewhere. There are subtleties that underlay this, such as not having too many people in the room (the opposite of point 5 above), having good facilitation (to make sure that meetings stay on task and don't duck the tough topics), and having good minutes that are promptly posted.

8. Culture clash
When two or more entities attmpt collaboration, they may not have similar cultures, or ways of doing business. When that happens and is not addressed, it's a sure path to misunderstanding and an erosion of trust.

9. Constricted inormation flow
Often collaborations result in a mushrooming expectation of who should receive updates on what's happenings, and it's relatively easy to drop a ball or two. When people are left out of the loop, even inadvertently, this also will erode trust and undercut the good will needed for a collaboration to remain robust.

• • •
Too bad the sessions weren't long enough to start tackling solutions. Maybe next time.

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