Sometimes collaboration stinks

Okay, got your attention now I imagine.

Yes, I am being overly dramatic. I guess what I really want to say is that sometimes a really good idea gets over done.  Collaboration is generally a good thing of course, but it seems sometimes we just do it or at least try to do it whether it is needed or not. Sometimes we do it because funders require it. I called that “coerced collaboration.”  Sometimes we do it to better position our organization in the sea of organizations.  It’s a “we” that’s all about “me.”

Teamwork also seems to be over emphasized at times.  Mutual accountability and participation around a common goal or aspiration is a good thing, when it fits. Sometimes, collaboration and teamwork drag us around and around. Too many voices, too many egos, too many agendas. All of those things can plague collaboration and teamwork.

Collaboration should not be an expectation in and of itself.  It is a method as well as a principle that should be deployed when common aspirations emerge and then are assessed by a group to warrant working together.  That decision should not carry the assumption that it will be easy, that everyone will get along, or that people won’t bring hidden agendas.

The purpose or at least one purpose of collaboration is to work through such realities.  I have been involved with collaborative projects over the years that were mighty difficult. Often the difficulties were sourced in the complexity of the work, resourcing joint efforts, ensuring appropriate communication streams, agreeing on how decisions get made, and so forth.  But of course other difficulties surface that appear to be the antithesis of collaboration: joining to protect one’s turf, participating to steer the boat to a predetermined destination; engaging to advance one’s profile.

My point is not to say “shame on you” but rather to suggest these are natural components of collaboration. Who doesn’t have turf to protect?  Who doesn’t have their individual ideas of where the collaborative journey should land? What leader does not want some measure of recognition for their leadership? Each player at the collaborative table carries with her or him the expectations, pressures, and politics of their organization. Do we really expect one another to shed all of that at the door?

I think one of the compelling reasons to collaborate is to struggle through individualism and its many manifestations and, in the end, achieve common outcomes in spite of the very barriers and side turns that present themselves during the course of the work.

Some of the best outcomes I have experienced via collaboration involved personal conflicts, bad behaviour, and inappropriate side bars.  Why were the results good? Because through it all, the participants kept on keeping on through implicit, if not explicit, checks and balances, because of good leadership and facilitation, and because all of the players in the final analysis were committed to doing the right things.

Sometimes I get frustrated when I see bright people clashing over territory or ego. It frustrates me because it slow us down. It also makes them look bad. But also sometimes it frustrates me because they are battling over territory that I believe is mine. I just don’t wage the battle in the same ways they do.

Imperfect people lead organizations. Leaders make good and bad decisions. Collaborators don’t always collaborate well.  I also get frustrated when I hear others who are not part of a collaborative effort criticizing those that are as if the critics somehow “know” how things should work in the group doing the work or as if they are exemplars of collaboration (when they very well realize they are challenged by the same issues and individual perspectives and behaviours we all are).

There are of course certain expectations we have of one another. Be respectful, convivial, transparent, and “other” focused. Pick the hills you will die on; in other words, don’t have too many hills. But we will fail at times to live up to our expectations. That’s just how things go, isn’t it?

The bottom line is about what has been accomplished, and what will be accomplished through collaboration.  We don’t have to like everybody we collaborate with, though it does help. But we do have to work with one another. And if anyone one of us reaches the point where we don’t want to work with others, then we should do the right thing: step out of the collaboration with grace.

And when they feel that way and remain at the table to disrupt the work – well, that is when collaboration stinks.

Other postings on collaboration:

Principles of Collaboration (on this blog)

Cooperation vs collaboration (Brent McKinnon’s blog)

Collaboration (Kenneth Crow)

Beyond Collaboration: Strategic Restructuring of Nonprofit Organizations (James Irving Foundation and National Centre for NonProfit Boards)

2 thoughts on “Sometimes collaboration stinks

  1. Hi Mark,

    You have posted a great personal snapshot of collaboration.

    A few thoughts your post evoked in me. Many E.D.’s, managers and service delivery people embrace collaboration because it’s a natural call for their wish to connect with others outside their organization. Intuitively if not experientially they know that their work is inextricably linked to the work of others and collaboration is a natural way to address those complexities. It feels right. Like many feelings, the behavior required to sustain your role in participating in collaboratives is a challenge.

    Of course the usual pressures from funders is also at play, coercing you to collaborate as a condition of funding. That doesn’t help. And yes, individual egos and organizational cultures, as natural (normal) as those factors are, sometimes (often) gets in the way of constructive collaborations.

    Once in the collaboration, many individuals are juggling a new set of values, attitudes, communication skills and they are challenged to be creative in ways they just don’t experience in their regular work.

    Many people in a collaboratives, just don’t or won’t take that new learning path. I think a lot of the frustration and stagnation that comes from many collaboratives stems from individual resistance or refusal to step up, speak out, be creative, drop or juggle your employer’s role that’s being defined for you and cast your viewpoints into the mix and work hard to make your collaboration flourish. They are not fitting the linchpin character profile that Seth Godin so eloquently wrote about.

    Obviously, your collaboration comments has provoked me and my work on collaborations. It will be interesting to follow other comments on you post.

    all the best,


  2. Brent, thanks for making the time to comment. You added to my thinking too. Great talking on the phone today as well. I am quite impressed with the work you are doing out there in TO.


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