Why Collaboration Doesn't Work

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“I really like the people I work with, we should work together more but I just don’t want to.” This was one response to why we don’t collaborate.

“Collaborate, collaboration, collaborative” are words found in almost all mission statements. The talk of collaboration has far exceeded the amount of actual collaboration. Some spend more time talking about how to get out of collaboration than they do actually collaborating (or maybe even working altogether). Has an overemphasis on collaboration actually decreased productivity?

Collaboration has clear benefits of sharing the load or pressure testing ideas to generate the best possible outcomes, and less tangible benefits like cross-functional learning or creating a social sense of belonging for employees.

As the opening response indicated, we feel like there is some value to working together, but something prevents it. Two possibilities—we don’t know how, and the organization really still expects us to work alone.  

Among most top hires, the two most valuable strengths fall into the category of “action oriented” and “results focused.” Throughout our education and early work career, we are trained and rewarded (hired, applauded and promoted) for individual work. Our organizations are full of people who get things done, want to be held accountable for and be recognized for their contributions. Collaboration doesn’t work because we like to do what we are good at doing (individual work) and individually-achieved successes are supported by supervisors and the performance system. There is no measurement system for collaboration and few tangible rewards.

The failure to collaborate is a function of excelling at what we are hired to do and of management reinforcing that excellence.

Collaboration is an idealized and vague goal with no concrete terms or rules. Collaboration is messy. It offers diluted accountability, perceived as unfair and offers few tangible rewards. And is often considered a waste of time due to the relatively small contribution compared to working alone.

To get more out of collaboration, try less of it. Involve your team in this process--don’t do it alone! To start have a conversation about purposeful collaboration by trying these questions:

  • What is our team purpose?

  • Where is collaboration essential to achieving an outcome of our department or function?

  • Where is working together more valuable than just the sum of individual efforts?

  • What work, which specific tasks, would require collaboration to deliver those results? (Sort a list of projects into those that could be handled by individuals and those that really would be improved by collaboration.)

  • Who really needs to hear the updates or express an opinion? Let individuals decide for themselves if they need to be in a meeting on a project and what they need to know. Once they get what they need in a meeting, make it okay to leave.

  • Who really needs to contribute on group project? Identify the specific purpose, role and responsibilities of every person on a collaborative project, and create accountability around that.

Learning how to collaborate, measuring the value and holding others accountable is much easier to do when you don’t do so much of it.

We are trapped between the organizational mission statement on collaboration and the real culture of an organization that rewards individual behavior. This has resulted in frustration, not greater productivity. Consider letting go of the all-in collaborative requirement and use it with more finesse in a purposeful and thoughtful way to figure out where collaboration really increases the effectiveness of your team.