Collaboration: is it working or are we falling to the lowest common denominator?

You often hear it in the workplace; the drive to encourage collaboration between teams as a method of being more effective. As our work environments become ever more complex and global; finding mechanisms for colleagues to be aware of and engage with each other becomes critical for business.

Peter Senge published a pivotal leadership book in 1990 called ‘The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organisation’. In this book, Senge states that he was ‘convinced that most the problems faced by humankind [were] concerned [with] our inability to grasp and manage the increasingly complex systems of our world’. Through the book, he weaves his story of how the five disciplines (systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning) come together to enable our organisations, not only to become more effective, but our experiences in our work environments to become more meaningful.

A critical component of the framework laid out by Senge is around collaboration. He intertwines the need for team learning, a way of communicating and understanding, to help build business success. Fast forward 25 years since this book was published and we may ask ourselves ‘Has anything changed’?

We are now encouraged to work in teams and collaborate across business units more than ever. To successfully remove the ‘silo’ mentality and enable the matrix organisation to deliver, the skills of communication, collaboration, problem-solving become paramount.
But have you ever worked in that team environment where, when you look about, you don’t see improvement, you don’t see excellence and you certainly don’t see achievement? This is when collaboration has become conformity. In the age of team work, have we lost the art of dialogue, debate, and discourse that truly enables us to respond in these changing times?

I recently worked on a project where this was alarmingly obvious. It was apparent that the management team had read the textbooks, but hadn’t understood the theory. Let me set the scene for you.

This was a project that required the expertise of a number of different engineering specialties. Early in the piece, they brought together a great number of experienced professionals who had previously worked on similar projects, but many of whom had never worked with each other.

To align this team, a number of workshops were held, all with the stated purpose of creating the shared vision and building the high performing team.

Progressively over the next few months, this project team beavered away in isolated groups on their part of the project. Regular meetings were held by the individual elements of the project team, for example, the commercial team met to discuss their objectives, the engineering team met to discuss theirs and the management team met to discuss how effective they were in meeting project related targets and aligning the various teams. Occasionally, the ‘big boss’ would venture out from his corner office to encourage us to achieve success, find creative solutions, but above all work together to deliver the project.

The project team however never worked collaboratively together, despite the need for the output of the engineering team design to be costed by the commercial team to determine whether a product could be developed and finally deliver a complete solution to the financial team to determine an appetite for funding.

Ultimately, 18 months after commencing and at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, this project failed. This is not necessarily unusual in major projects (sad, but true), but questions have been asked of a number of key executives within the business regarding their decisions in relation to proceeding. They argue that hindsight now tells them that the idea may not have been sound, but I have a different view.

Many outside the business were questioning the validity of the decision at the initial commencement and even a few inside the business tried to speak up to stem the cash haemorrhaging that was occurring on the project. The management team however only surrounded themselves with people who held similar views to themselves or who didn’t voice their concerns.  Any conversation regarding concerns were quickly shut down and the individuals sidelined from future discussions.

Now most people know that when you toss a coin enough times, on average, 50% it will come up heads and 50% it will come up tails. What does this have to do with collaboration?
Management needs to ask itself, ‘if I ask a question and I only receive agreement then I potentially have two key problems’:

  1. It is likely that 50% of the people I am talking too are not telling me what they really think of this idea.
  2. Is my team diverse enough and have the requisite skills to analyse what is occurring to ensure we get the best outcome?

Either way, you have collaboration that is now representing the lowest common denominator. In fact, you have blind conformity.

So my challenge to you all and my current mission is to encourage the divergent views, embrace them and immerse yourself in the challenge of its potential ‘uncomfortableness’.

Because collaboration is not about homogenisation or blind agreement, it’s about getting the best people into your team to challenge ideas and bring in new ones.

Creativity and innovation flows and new opportunities are born when we engage in collaboration and listen to different ideas.

Senge, P. 2006. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation. Random House, London.


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