With the food and festivities out of the way — we move to the formalities.
Collaboration, by definition is the action of working with someone to produce something. This very article, for example — a product of collaboration. Given that 1.3 billion people head off to work every day, ostensibly to produce something for their organisations, you might say collaboration is an inherent part of every business.
A recent study in The Harvard Business Review found that the time spent in collaborative activities at work has fattened by over fifty percent in the past two decades. It’s no coincidence that this increase in collaborative work mirrors the escalating complexity of business. Larger scale projects; more complicated problems; tighter timeframes: these things require bigger teams with specialised skill sets and diverse backgrounds, often spread across the globe. There’s more pieces than ever to come together smoothly for success — an intricate logistical and managerial dance.
There’s no shortage of evidence demonstrating the fruits of great collaboration. Peek beneath the skirts of any success and you’ll almost certainly discover a great group. Even in cases where an individual claims the spotlight, behind them — a talented team who’ve collectively elevated the vision. Research supports the link between collaboration and performance. People working in high-performing teams have been proven to achieve better results, find better solutions to problems, spot mistakes faster, and even report higher job satisfaction than individuals working in isolation. Executives also identify a noticeable improvement in profitability when employees are encouraged to collaborate, and collaborate well.
Then, there’s innovation. With technology continuing to accelerate exponentially, and upstarts and start-ups recklessly disrupting the established — many organisations are looking towards innovation to avoid irrelevance. Because effective collaboration shapes the environment needed to connect seemingly unrelated ideas in ways that haven’t been done before, or re-purposed for a different context, it provides the ideal catalyst and climate for innovation.
For an organisation, department or leader to thrive, they need to influence not only how their people work, but the way they work together.
But, it’s not that easy.
Yes, despite being social creatures, collaboration seems to come with surprising difficulty. We’ve been told we’re all beautiful and unique snowflakes — and we certainly are. Put us in a group however, and all those wonderful individual quirks, backgrounds, values, drivers, and emotions also make for a fraught and challenging exercise in leadership, requiring skills spanning communication, psychology, behavioural science, motivation science and group dynamics.
We might also wag an accusatory finger at our traditional education system for making matters worse. When it comes to education, I tread lightly. There’s many bright minds at work in this complex field, and polarising but equally plausible points of view abound. One school of thought popularised by Sir Ken Robinson is the notion that we’ve been educated out of collaborative behaviour. Throughout our formative years we’re educated in groups, but constantly evaluated, recognised and rewarded on our individual performance. Arguments for the effectiveness, efficiency and fairness of this system aside, it seems reasonable to assume it wouldn’t foster a particularly collaborative mindset.
The focus on the individual continues through tertiary education and into employment. Here, we’re hired on our own merits, and continued to reap rewards and recognition as individuals. Yet suddenly we’re thrown into groups — our performance tethered to others. Often underprepared — proficient in our profession, but not in the specialised skills required to work effectively as a group. Yes, after years of being encouraged to put ourselves first, we’re suddenly told it’s really about the team. Work together! Collaboration is crucial! This all presents a particular and peculiar conundrum for leaders who need to balance a collaborative approach to achieve results, with the individual savvy needed to progress up the promotions ladder.
It’s little wonder that collaboration myths and mystique blurs into hazy half-truths like unicorn and yeti. It’s no surprise we sometimes fail spectacularly at performing as a pack.
On that cheerful note, we press on.