Four False Beliefs About Collaboration

Nov 19, 2019

In today’s organizations, just about everybody seems to want more collaboration. We encourage more collaboration within teams, more collaboration across functions, with customers, with external partners…  In fact, we talk about increasing the volume of collaboration so much, that we rarely stop to think about how all this collaboration should work. But we should.

A lot of my work with leaders, centers on the connections between the way we think and the way we act.  No, that doesn’t mean just claiming that we have a “collaboration mindset” and calling it a day. It means looking at beliefs, which we may not even realize we hold, and how they unintentionally shape what we do. It means unpacking the assumptions we have about the way the world works and examining how well those beliefs serve us.

Here are four common beliefs about collaboration and some of their unintended consequences. Please have a look and think about your own organization. If you see these beliefs in action, you might want to rethink your approach: 

False Belief #1: More Collaboration is Always Better

The most common belief about collaboration sounds something like this:  “If collaboration is good, then more collaboration must be better.” There’s a certain logic to that. However, this belief translates into the common practice of just throwing lots of people at projects. If there’s a problem, there should be a task force or a cross-functional team. That team should be as large as possible to “get diverse perspectives”. 

This all sounds fine, until you’re on one of these teams and it’s not going well. Then you realize that half the people on the team were put there arbitrarily – not because they have the most relevant expertise, but because they were available, or somebody wanted to give them “exposure”. As anyone who’s hosted a holiday celebration with a big family can tell you, it is possible to have too many cooks in the kitchen – especially if they don’t know how to peel a potato.

Another common practice is to have more meetings – especially standing meetings and long meetings, where the team is expected to make decisions or hash out operational details on the spot. These meetings are often pushed well past point of diminishing returns. After many hours, you begin to realize that the one thing these meetings are good at, is eating up massive numbers of work hours with little to show for it.

The Truth Is: You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing

A more effective approach is to look for the right level of collaboration. That starts with asking what we want to achieve, and then pulling in those collaborators who have the insights, skills, and resources to achieve it. It also means allowing for variation in the level of collaboration at different phases of the work. It would be strange if we needed the exact same people and the same cadence during problem definition as we do in idea generation – or decision making vs. execution. Figuring out when and how often to bring people together is just as important as figuring out who.

False Belief #2: Collaboration Must Be Unstructured

Another common belief is that collaboration must be unstructured. It’s not enough to have people work together, but they must also do it “collaboratively”. What people mean, when they say that, is a style characterized by informality, low central authority, and a lack of defined roles and processes. The intent is to encourage maximum participation and the free exchange of ideas, which would be a good thing. Unfortunately, the idea that successful collaboration will just organically happen, if we put people together, doesn’t turn out to be true. The effect is slow progress or no progress.

Lowering perceived power distance can quickly morph into the lack of any clear process for making decisions. That results in teams spinning their wheels endlessly or settling for lowest-common-denominator courses of action. In the absence of clear roles, frequently a couple of people end up doing all the work, while a lot of other folks do very little. (Feel free to raise your hand if you’ve been there.) An uncharitable interpretation is that people are just looking for the free ride, and nobody can hold them accountable. A more generous one is that people are actually unsure of what they should and shouldn’t be doing. So, they hold back.

When teams remain together for long periods, they tend to settle into informal roles and processes. When key leaders form trusted relationships with “go-to” peers across the organization, there’s an unspoken sense of who does what and how we move through tasks. Those things can be very effective. However, in most organizations, we don’t have the luxury of that kind of time. People move in and out of roles. Organizational priorities and projects are changing to keep pace with the market and the competition. The sets of players we need to collaborate with, is changing all the time.

Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson has done some great work on collaboration in fast-paced environments. She found that creating a level of structure is, in fact, a key to success. In hospital emergency rooms, for example, the exact mix of personnel is constantly shifting, but defined roles allow team members to quickly jump into the work. Sorting tasks, and identifying the kinds of collaboration required for each, was similarly tied to greater effectiveness in her research.

The Truth Is: Structure Speeds Collaboration

So, a more effective approach is to look for just enough structure. Team processes and roles don’t necessarily need to be imposed from above, but collaborators would be well served to talk explicitly about the roles each will play and which tasks they will take on.

False Belief #3: Collaboration Means Harmony and Consensus

We tend to associate the word “collaboration” with positive and pleasant interactions. Many people believe collaboration is synonymous with creating harmony and consensus in groups. People who raise unpopular viewpoints, or question those of others, may even be labelled as “not very collaborative”.  But, let’s face it: work isn’t all butterflies and unicorns. 

We don’t really need much collaboration for things that are simple and well-defined. We have established processes and structures for that. We need collaboration for the stuff that is complex. We need collaboration for the problems that we don’t have the answers to yet. We need collaboration to generate new ideas and to make tough decisions. If we’re dealing with those kinds of issues, then it’s only natural that we won’t all agree on everything. The process of exploring and navigating those divergent views is where we’re going to create the most value. Unfortunately, it isn’t comfortable to talk about disagreements. However, when there is too much consensus in groups, we know that creativity and decision quality actually go down. 

The Truth Is: Collaboration Requires Healthy Debate

A more effective approach is to foster a healthy level of disagreement and debate. The key is to frame that debate as an exchange of ideas, aimed at finding the best outcome for the business, rather than a personal conflict.

False Belief #4: Collaboration is Free

Pulling in collaborators from across the company doesn’t show up as a line item in my budget. So, it must be free, right?  That seems to be the operating assumption of many corporate leaders, given how quick they are to suck up the time of colleagues from across the organization. Why pay for a dedicated resource, when we can just throw a cross-functional team at it?

I know people who are pulled into so many meetings and projects in their organizations, that they do their “day job” at night and on the weekends. Setting aside the personal cost to those employees, which is considerable, it would be absurd to believe that this doesn’t come at a cost to their job performance as well. There is always an opportunity cost associated with the work people could otherwise be doing.

In addition to opportunity costs, UC Berkeley’s Morten Hansen writes about costs of collaboration itself: longer timelines, energy spent coordinating across functions, effort spent integrating the work of collaborators, and so on. In his research, collaboration is justified when there is still a premium on the result of the project after figuring for the fully loaded costs. You may not have enough visibility into the fully loaded costs of your project to run exact calculations. However, that kind of thinking can still be incredibly helpful. 

The Truth Is: Collaboration is an Investment

Rather than treating collaboration time and effort as free, we should really weigh the costs and the benefit. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t collaborate. However, we should make smart choices to deploy collaboration on those initiatives where it will give us the most benefit, and not to squander it on things that could easily be achieved by routine work processes.

Finding False Beliefs in Your Organization

The tricky thing about false beliefs, is that we can’t observe them directly. They operate inside all of our heads. So, it takes some work to identify them. The key is to look for organizational practices that are ineffective, but also widespread and persistent. Then ask, “why do we repeatedly do these things that don’t work?” Often, the answer is some misguided beliefs that drive us. In some cases, those beliefs may even have been true in the past, but no longer serve us.

Once the human mind forms a belief, it tends to be very sticky. It would seem great, if we could just tell people to change their beliefs, and then they would do it. But we all know it doesn’t work like that. In fact, even telling people what we suspect they believe, is dangerous territory. It tends to create a lot of resistance very quickly.

What we can do, is help people recognize those persistent and ineffective practices, and explore what might be behind them for themselves. We can also create visible experiments, where we show the good things that can happen, when we play out the implications of a different set of beliefs. It takes a lot of external evidence to convince people to alter deeply held assumptions. But, when we experience things in a vivid and personal way, the doors can open for change.

Another thing about false beliefs, is that there’s no shortage of them. You may find other misconceptions about collaboration which hold sway in your organization and cause specific kinds of trouble. But, if you want to start improving collaboration in your organization, looking for these four is a great place to start.