Collaboration is a Relationship

One of the consequences of our machine metaphor of work is a transactional view of tasks. We see work as moving inputs to outputs moment by moment through our actions. The human engagement in our actions can be lost in the business. A transactional view of collaboration is one that will have limited success. Collaboration exists in relationships and fostering those relationships in groups and communities is key to ongoing value creation

Bringing Relationships to the Fore

Imagine a total stranger from your organisation approaches you at work and says ‘let’s collaborate’. Your immediate reactions are predictable:

  • Connect: Who are you? For what purpose would we collaborate? Why should I bother?
  • Share: Tell me more. I need some context.
  • Solve: How can I help? What do we need to achieve together?
  • Innovate: What do you need to do differently? What capabilities are missing?
Developing a relationship through work

Expecting someone to collaborate without addressing at least a minimum answer to these issues is relying on their inherent human generosity. Not everyone at work begins an interaction with a stranger as a good samaritan with time, capability and resources to spare. Our transactional focus at work often pushes the exact opposite mindset of husbanding our information, resources and capabilities for our own work.

A stranger demanding you collaborate transactionally is not an opportunity. It is a threat. That threat is not solved by simply designating people a group, a project or a team. Before we can bring about effective and valuable collaboration we need to start fostering the kind of relationships that engender connection and community.

Relationships Means Time

Relationships are reciprocal. A one-way relationship is no relationship at all. All the parties that need to come together in collaboration need to have the time and effort put into establishing the necessarily level of relationships. This effort is one reason why collaboration activities are rarely overnight big bank launches. The community that is expected to collaborate needs to spend time together connecting, sharing and solving problems towards the greater goal.

No matter how safe you assure people collaboration will be they want to see it in action. No matter how much value you promise people from sharing information they want to experience the value themselves first. No matter how big the benefit of collaborating on problems, people want to see the successes and the benefits before they commit their time and effort to strangers or even their immediate colleagues.

The Collaboration Maturity Model above is underpinned by its focus on these human relationship dynamics of alignment, trust, capability, agency and reciprocity. The steps of the model describe only the phases. The detailed work in each phase is how we realise new levels alignment, trust, agency and reciprocity.

Because we can’t turn on collaboration when we need it, the work of leaders is to be continuously building the relationships and capability across the organisation. The use case and benefits of collaboration exist in your organisation today. What is lacking is the relationships that bring that capability to bear on your organisations strategic problems and enable your employees to contribute directly to the success of your organisation. Building enduring collaborative communities in your organisation gives you ways to leverage this talent to achieve your strategic goals.

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