Learn to collaborate… for selfish reasons

I am definitely pro-collaboration, and yet, if I’m honest, the word somehow makes me vomit in my mouth a little. 

I rail against corporate jargon, and it seems, quite tragically, collaboration has become one of those words that has earned its place on the corporate buzzword bingo list.

Today in business, collaboration has become a generic value that is commonly espoused yet seldom delivered. Business, after business, plaster their websites, annual reports and resumes with their ‘collaborative approach’.‘We’re very collaborative’, ‘We have a very collaborative culture’, ‘It’s one team, one dream around here!’

Yet most aren’t truly collaborative.

The definition of collaboration seems to have gotten a little mixed up and modified for the sake of political correctness. It is used as a demonstration of a positive, amicable culture. We frequently use the word to mean ‘play nicely with each other or else HR will send you on a course’.

The infuriating process of ‘decision by committee’ has cleverly renamed itself – collaboration. It is now a badge that says, ‘above all, we get along’. It shouldn’t be.

Instead we should embrace collaboration as something we do for our own gain.

Here’s how:

  1. Chase progress not harmony.

Collaboration doesn’t have to be kind all of the time. Working towards a common purpose doesn’t mean you have to be best friends, share all your secrets and braid each others hair. Disagreement is a powerful collaborative tool.

Debating, arguing, challenging and disagreeing breeds change. Sometimes to change perspective you have to get a few scratches climbing up to a higher vantage point. Often you need to be called out for your blinkered approach, teased for your old fashioned views, prodded for your slow thinking and challenged for your safe and certain strategy.

Some of the greatest collaborations have been tumultuous, rocky and far from non-stop smiley faces and group hugs.

When you consider collaborative partnerships such as Abbott and Costello, Lennon and McCartney, Fred and Ginger, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis or Johnny and Baby you realise that no one should put collaboration in the let’s be nice to each other corner.

Tension often is where the magic is. When you truly value what collaboration can do you focus on the outcome not just the process.

  1. Don’t share everything

If you had siblings growing up you probably did what my sisters and I did and on the rare occasion you were allowed soft drink you carefully poured it and measured it to the millilitre. That is sharing. It is not collaborating.

Collaboration is defined as the act of working with someone to produce something. No mention of sharing every little part equally and fairly. Yet somehow the notion of fairness pervades our current take on it. We seem to have decided that in true collaborations everyone gets equal credit and a say in everything.

But that just makes for more work and further decisions for everyone.

Collaborating should make you better; it should fill in your weaknesses and blind spots. It’s like having a side mirror that allows you to see what’s coming your way and what you could collide with. It should give you a role and a place to contribute that isn’t like anyone else’s. So seek difference and different roles. Share what you need to and run with your own stuff where you can.

It is about contribution not conformity.

True collaboration is about creating what would not be possible until all are in the room together.

  1. Have a goal bigger than your differences

The Euro tunnel is one of my favourite examples of the power of collaboration. It is one of the seven wonders of the modern world and an engineering marvel.

Yet for me what makes it extraordinary is the fact the French and English collaborated on it. The common goal was bigger than their differences (and dislike for each other).

If they can work together you can work with those you don’t like but who can help you achieve something bigger than what you could alone. That is what great collaboration is. Creating something worth being uncomfortable for.

If you are collaborating make sure the why is clearly defined. Know what you personally will get out of it and what you get out of it together.

  1. Seek growth not love

Having people who love us is vital but not necessarily to collaboration. Those who love us are meant to love us unconditionally. Whereas those who collaborate with us should love what we can create with them.

If we want to be challenged. It we want to be greater. If we want to be more, we need to see collaborative people as more than those who give us a hug and tell us we are doing amazing.

  1. Embrace irritation

I once bumped into someone who had worked for me some years earlier. She was doing well, her career had progressed to a leadership position and she seemed happy.

She proceeded to tell me she never really liked me when she worked for me (she used the word almost hated) but that she was so very grateful.

She told me that of all the jobs she had had and all the people she had worked for, working for and with me had irritated her the most, but I had made her better. I was the only person who wasn’t a ‘friend’ but was a stand for her brilliance and ability to do more.

Apparently I irritated the greatness out of her.

That is collaboration to me. People who push, prod, poke, cajole and irritate us into greatness. Those who refuse to smile and pretend that our current view of the world and importantly ourselves is enough. Those who see more for us than smiling compliance to the status quo. Those who stretch us into a different shape, alter our current views, processes or preferences and move us forward.

Sure it’s not always nice or pretty or full of high fives. But it is wonderful.

Don’t do it to be nice; do it to be smarter, better and greater than you would be all by yourself. 

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