We say it all the time. It falls off our tongues in meetings. “What we are going to do is collaborate on this project to get great outcomes.” Do we really know what we are saying when we say it? Do we know what we are committing to?
Collaboration is often used as a generic term to describe any version of people working together in some way or other. When clearly defined and used purposefully, however, “Collaboration is a trusting, working relationship between two or more equal participants involved in shared thinking, shared planning and shared creation,” according to Patricia Montiel-Overall.
The key words in this definition are ‘equal’ and ‘share’. So if you do intend to approach a project collaboratively, here’s what you are really saying when those words pop out of your mouth:
- I’m not going to be in control of the outcome. We are.
- I’m not going to be in control of the process. We are. It has to work for all of us so it’s best designed by us.
- I don’t believe I know the best, or any, solution to this issue, so I am genuinely open to ideas.
- I think I am going to get a better outcome and ownership of the solution (or change required) if I do all of the above.
Sounds risky yes? Perhaps it is. But consider the alternative end of the spectrum.
- I’m going to push through with project decisions, despite objections or passive resistance.
- I’m going to disregard really good advice or new insights from stakeholders because I have a deadline and budget to meet above all else.
- I’m going to do a lot of work first to research and recommend what I think is the best way forward, before I involve wider stakeholders. Then I’m going to tell them what my idea is and why it is the right way forward (and hopefully convince them to agree.)
- I’m going to get ownership of the solution and manage change by persuasion or mandate.
Reality is what happens somewhere in between those black and whites, but it does put you in something of a dilemma as a project manager.
If you collaborate it might feel like it is hard to fulfil your job title to MANAGE the project because you can’t set everything in concrete. However, if you don’t collaborate you might get a pretty poor result from your project, especially if it is a really complex issue you are trying to solve. And the worst-case scenario is that your project is not implementable at all and you have to start all over again – a disaster in terms timeframe and budget control!
As an advocate of collaborative processes let me share why I believe it is worth the risks to step into that shared space when you run a project.
You can get more from less
A collaborative approach allows you to access additional resources. Collaboration also helps your stakeholders—whoever they are—understand your financial constraints, which in turn helps them temper their demands. Thirdly, collaboration allows innovative responses to tough situations.
Your co-collaborators will embrace and advocate change
Change is hard when done ‘to’ us, and exciting when done ‘by’ us. This is the power of collaboration, which allows us to shift in response to an ever-shifting working environment by inviting everyone in to co-create the future together.
It’s the right tool for a complex job
Where interconnectedness makes it hard to determine cause and effect, or there is no way ‘this thing’ can happen without others, you really have no choice but to collaborate. As Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework tells us, when facing complex dilemmas, collaboration will foster innovation through emergence. If a system is complex, collaboration will allow that system to be the author of the best solutions.
You’ll get a good reputation
If you want to be known for fostering innovation, building excellent relationships, getting great outcomes to complex dilemmas and building knowledge and capability in your organisation, then collaboration is the way to go.
You’re likely to get a brilliant solution
Collaboration can set the stage for that elusive outcome to emerge; a smart, sustainable, implementable solution rather than just another predictable decision. If you want something brilliant and you know you can’t get it on your own, invite all those stakeholders with competing needs to come together and share that task of finding a win-win solution that you could never have imagined possible.
The next step is how to make that vision of shared thinking, shared planning and shared creation a reality on your project.