Is the price of collaboration too high?

Of all the buzzwords floating around offices and shops today, there is no bigger buzzword than collaboration. Like most buzzwords, there exists a shelf life for words like collaboration. However, no one can predict the expiry date.

Most would agree that collaboration is necessary for the day to day operations of such ventures as a business, healthcare, and education. Yet, is the price of collaboration too high? Do others appreciate the commitment and sacrifice required to truly make collaboration work and work well? I suspect most do not – but they quickly find out. Sometimes to the detriment of the team and the purpose of a given collaborative effort.

The general consensus about a working definition of collaboration is that collaboration is an effort to work together to achieve a given goal. Although this definition is accurate one can’t ignore the other side of the definition. The dark side of collaboration. Namely, that collaboration is a traitorous cooperation with the enemy. Don’t think that fits? Google it.

For some people, the latter definition rings all too clear. Too many times they are assigned to a team and mandated to collaborate within that team. I wonder how many times you and I have been in this situation only to look across the table and realize that we are facing that one person that we really dislike?

Now, I understand that we would work as professionals in this situation however the hardest part of collaboration is not found in our professional interactions. We can fake things very well. No, the hardest part of collaboration is found deep within us. The elixir of collaboration can be reduced down to a single word which straightens any spine. That word is trust.

Collaboration is not successful because your team is made up of subject matter experts. Collaboration is not successful because there is a shared vision, a common goal, or a common enemy. Collaboration only works when there is a shared trust within your team.


Collaboration is all about relationships. We simply cannot get things done without other people. The world is becoming too complex and adaptive to allow us to work in isolation any longer. We may have gotten away with that kind of behaviour in the past but no longer. We need others and they need us.

Ask any marriage counsellor or executive consultant or a coach for mini soccer, the secret recipe for success in playing well with others is trust.

Does this mean that we should stop collaborating?

Morten Hansen wrote, quite provocatively, that unless we are willing to work to make the collaborative environment a safe and trusting environment we shouldn’t collaborate at all.

“bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration”

Unfortunately, the lone wolf approach to getting complex projects done requires that we learn to work together. For some, this learning curve will be no greater than a mere speed bump. For others, the learning curve can quickly evolve into a learning cliff. With too few rock holds.

However, there is good news concerning collaboration and the inherent challenges each collaborative effort presents to the group. The good news is we don’t have to become best friends with whom we collaborate. Depending on the size and personalities in the room, the expectation of getting one hundred percent buy-in from a diverse and sometimes difficult room can become self-defeating. Yet with time, commitment, and consistency successful levels of collaboration can be achieved – even if you don’t like everyone in the room.

Building the foundation for collaboration

In my opinion and experience, the number one contributing factor to building trust is clear and consistent communication.

In a parody piece I wrote a while ago, I mentioned that if you want to encourage a climate of dysfunctionality just stop communicating.

Gervase Bushe wrote a book called Clear Leadership. In it, he drives home the reality that in an absence of communication people will make up their own stories. He refers to this as the ‘Mush’ and it exists between people when they stop communicating. Left to their own, these created mush stories begin to inform thoughts and perceptions that could derail any attempt at collaboration.

So, in order to build a solid foundation for collaboration significant time and effort must be put into enacting the commitment to communicate. Please don’t assume you and your team have this nailed. Please don’t assume that you or your team communicate well enough. The small amount of time it takes to make things clear will save hours, even days, from wasted labour and excuses.

Of course taking the initiative to create a climate of clear communication can be risky. Especially when a culture of closed and murky communication has been the dominant culture for a period of time. This initiative will take courage and it may produce some short-term struggles and frustration. Yet, why should you take this any less seriously than you would a rehab program for a physical injury? Follow the plan and you’ll be back in the game – most likely stronger and more confident. Choose to take the plan lightly or our right disregard it and you’re setting yourself up for big failure.

Is the price of collaboration too high? For some, it will be. For others, maybe not. For those tired of their current status quo, it’s not as high as the alternative.

But then again, working with others has never been easy. However, remember this – nothing of significance has ever been accomplished without people working together for the greater good of all those involved.