Unlearning Collaboration


I’ve been working on collaboration within and between organisations for over 10 years in earnest. The biggest lesson in that time is how much I have to forget. So many of my initial ideas, approaches and assumptions have proved ineffective. Here’s a short primer on a few of the lessons that I have had to unlearn.

  1. Forget the technology: Collaboration is about human behaviour in human relationships. Technology can enable and mediate these relationships but the core dynamics are human. The minute you want technology to change human behaviour you have an adoption problem.
  2. Focus on relationships, not features: the behaviours you want need to be sensible in real human relationships. You want people to decide to do them. Forget the ever changing list of fancy features. Most of your users will never use them or even notice. AI, bots, video, gamification and more can have a temporary impact. User behaviour change is what delivers sustainable activity and that is driven by relationships.
  3. You don’t need a shared goal: As discussed in a recent post on stretch collaboration, you don’t need a shared goal. Collaboration will happen when there are aligned interests, particularly strongly personal ones.
  4. You don’t need the CEO: having the CEO public support, advocate and participate in your collaboration initiative is great. It is also rare and can make engagement very fragile if CEO priorities change. Remember the CEO is only one relationship for an employee. They are more likely to be influenced by someone they respect near by.
  5. People enjoy sharing: everywhere across organisations people connect, share and work together. Go find that work, support it and bring it together. If you have to consistently tell users, your program is failing.
  6. Start with the user, not the company: you can’t make someone collaborate. You can’t force people to work out loud. Company goals are a way to find individual motivations. They are not an end in themselves. Starting with individuals helps you find their existing relationships that can be more collaborative. It also helps you find new relationships to create value.
  7. Focus on individuals, not personas or generations: Averages don’t do anything. Averages don’t mean anything. Focus on real people. Averages don’t have relationships, do work or collaborate.
  8. Don’t do special. Do the work: nobody in the modern workplace needs more work. Don’t add new processes and more complexity. Use collaboration to remove complexity and change processes. Focus on making existing work easier. Use tools to reduce the work, make it easier and better.
  9. No jargon: fancy words make consultants and their clients feel better. They don’t influence users. Big ideas like big tech mostly disappoint. Connect, Share, Solve and Innovate are deliberately simple words.
  10. If you buck the culture, culture wins: Culture is more likely to change your project than you are likely to change culture. When a vendor or consultant suggests they can change culture put aside a large contingency to fix the issues and make sure your leadership at all levels are going to work on the change too.

One thought on “Unlearning Collaboration

  1. Some great lessons, many of which I have learned myself over the past decade or so, thanks for sharing. I had actually jotted a couple of these down over the weekend sketching out a talk proposal for KMWorld 2018, focusing on 2 – 7 with 4 (you don’t need the CEO) and 6 (start with people). Working title of the talk is “Employee centric KM on enterprise social networks.”

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