Collaboration Fast & Slow


Christoph Hewett asked this great question attending the #2014FOW conference.  The question set off a huge discussion as people debated the need to move faster in a disruptive economy with an increasing emphasis on collaboration because of the networked nature of that economy.

Much of the discussion was about whether collaboration is really slower. The slowness of collaboration is the common perception. In traditional management terms of clear decision makers and control of resources, collaboration is often perceived as slower and more difficult.

I recognise the concerns raised. I have heard it often. My experience differs in that I have seen collaboration deliver accelerated results. I attribute that concern to the view that collaboration is a ‘softer way’ of management. 

Separate Collaboration from Consensus

Collaboration and consensus are often used as synonyms. They are not.  The involvement in other people in collaborative work does not mean that there need be large numbers, everyone has to have universal agreement or that the work is directionless.

Successful collaborative projects have strong leadership and direction at their core.  This leadership helps them to find and leverage the common direction of the competing agendas of those involved. For example, Linus Torvalds remains the ultimate authority on what gets included in Linux despite its open source collaborative model.

Slow Collaboration – Collaboration as the What

We need to start to distinguish between slow collaboration and fast collaboration. When people see the slowness of collaboration, they often are looking at abstract exercises of stakeholder engagement or consensus. Talk oriented, this approach is the practice of engaging a rolling group of people seeking consensus for its own sake (or in the absence of any other plan).  These forms of activity are rarely satisfying for anyone.  The stakeholders engaged usually end up frustrated at the lack of action and the unwillingness to make a decision.

In this meaning of slow collaboration, collaboration is the point of the exercise (what). Consensus or other collaborative activities that have this approach are where traditional management develops the sense that collaboration is soft and ineffective.

Fast Collaboration – Collaboration as the How

“Collaboration – the action of working with someone to produce something” – Oxford English dictionary

We collaborate every day with other people to do our work.  We just don’t call it collaboration. We call it getting help or using expertise or completing a project together. These small acts of collaboration are not seen as difficult because we understand the work, we understand the goals and who gets to make decisions.

Fast collaboration, at any scale, focuses on collaboration as a means (the how) to achieve a goal (the why) with clear roles for the participants which include decision rights (the who).   

Collaboration is not the point of the exercise. The point of fast collaboration is getting work done better. If things drift, everyone can be reminded that there is a goal to be achieved and one or many leaders responsible for ensuring that the exercise gets to the goal. 

The benefits of fast collaboration can be huge:  

  • Reduced search time for information and resources.
  • Faster and more flexible access to the collective skills, capabilities and experience of other people.
  • Increased passion and engagement leading to more discretionary effort, more creativity and better influence.
  • Reduced time learning, selling change or educating stakeholders because they are part of the journey

With increasing leverage of networks and increasing complexity in our goals,  how we do our work and how we structure our organisations, collaboration is increasingly unavoidable.  The challenge for organisations is not how to avoid collaboration but how to effectively leverage it to gain the benefits of the network era. Those who don’t leverage collaboration will be at a significant disadvantage to those who can reap the benefits above.

Fast Collaboration is Hard

Reaping the benefits of collaboration is not easy. For traditional management focused on power, control and ownership, it can be a radical challenge.

Fast and effective collaboration is hard precise because the investment upfront and ongoing to align people.  Alignment takes tough conversations traditional management often ignores in commands and one-way communication.  In larger groups, these conversations challenge leaders to demonstrate adaptive leadership skills and focus not on their agenda but what realises the potential of the group.

Having hard alignment conversations upfront and ongoing around purpose and decision rights flushes out the real issues that are otherwise ignored and avoids learning, rework, duplication, conflict and waste later. To move fast, this kind of collaboration must manage the conflict in people’s agendas early and it must have ongoing mechanisms to drive accountability and resolve conflicts.

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