Misconceptions about Collaboration

I was really annoyed when I read Cynthia Gibson’s piece on collaboration (which was also reposted by my friends at the Monitor Institute). I actually agreed with many of the points in the piece — the importance of clarity in roles and decision-making, for example, and the fact that collaboration is in service of a goal.

What bugged me was the erroneous premise. Why associate a “collaborative culture” with lack of clarity or regression to the mean? That’s not a collaborative culture, that’s a crappy culture.

“Collaboration” does not mean “non-hierarchical” or “consensus-driven.” It simply means two or more people working together toward a shared, bounded goal. You can do it well, or you can do it badly, but in both cases, you’re collaborating.

Let’s look at some of the most high-performing organizations in the world. Consider the New England Patriots, for example. Since 2001, they have 107 wins, 37 losses, and three Superbowl championships. Their organizational model? Hierarchical.

Or consider The French Laundry, widely acknowledged as one of the best restaurants in the world, with a large kitchen staff helmed by the superstar chef, Thomas Keller. Their organizational model? Hierarchical.

Or consider the Vienna Philharmonic, which is consistently considered one of the best symphony orchestras in the world. Organizational model? Hierarchical.

These are all hierarchical organizations that far surpass their peers because they are more collaborative.

Hierarchy describes a structure. Consensus describes a decision-making process. Neither is a measure of how effectively collaborative a group is.

I’m not just nit-picking language. These misconceptions are often the very reason why groups are led astray in the ways that Cynthia describes in her otherwise excellent piece.

With groups, it’s rarely a question of whether or not they’re collaborating. It’s almost always a question of whether they’re collaborating well. Having a “collaborative culture” doesn’t mean you’re collaborating with more people. It means you’re collaborating effectively. Every organization should be striving for this.

Sometimes, this means exploring alternative decision-making processes or figuring out ways to work with more people. You determine this through careful thought and experimentation. And that’s really the bottom line. I’ve never seen a group that was ineffective because it was “too collaborative.” Groups are generally ineffective because they don’t think carefully and they don’t work thoughtfully.

3 replies to “Misconceptions about Collaboration”

  1. Morten Hansen would agree with you. He writes in his book Collaboration that no collaboration is better than bad collaboration. He touts the T-shaped individual as an apt collaborator, the vertical line of deep expertise, coupled with the horizontal line of wide interests and openness to those very different that oneself – thus echoing Scott Page in The Difference. Some firms are working on Doing Both (bk title) – combo of maximizing productivity and innovation w/ a mix of top down and collaborative systems.

  2. Eric:
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I actually agree with you and am a bit distressed that the point didn't come through as much as I'd have liked. You're completely correct: Collaborative cultures — when done well and with clarity about what they're doing — are, in my humble opinion — "the" way to go, when it comes to getting things done. (I've written a ton about collaboration, in fact, becoming a much-needed norm in the world, thanks largely to technology and a younger generation driving this practice.) What I've seen — and so have others, apparently, given the largely positive response to the post — however, is that in some places, collaboration becomes paramount as an end to itself. And you're right: That's the point… That's not collaboration. It's ineffective management. So, I agree with you… Hope that clears it up!

    1. Cynthia, I understood what you were trying to say in your post, and I thought the points you were trying to make were spot on. The reason I reacted so strongly was that I see people use "collaboration" as a proxy for "designed-by-committee" all the time, which then becomes a convenient excuse not to do it at all. ("We don't actually want to become more collaborative, because it's actually a bad thing!") It's lazy thinking, and it leads to problems.

      You clearly are not a lazy thinker — the whole premise of your post was quite thoughtful — but there are going to be some lazy thinkers who read your post. I think it's critical to be precise about what we mean by collaboration when we talk about it, because the wrong framing often leads people astray.

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