Three rules for successful collaboration

"Communication is something so simple and difficult that we can never put it in simple words." ---T. S. Matthews

One of the most popular words in the business lexicon these days is collaboration. Everyone seems eager to flatten the organization, get rid of hierarchy, eliminate command-and-control structures and collaborate across broad multifunctional teams.

Wow! That’s quite an objective, isn’t it. But do we really understand collaboration and why it’s become such a ubiquitous battle cry?

On most days, I'm pretty sure that collaboration is just the newest sheep in communication clothing, a word designed to give new life to the tiresome concepts of "communication" that remain at the root of so many of our life challenges. Both are about encouraging people to share information, be transparent in decision-making and work in teams across functional groups without becoming isolated in silos that neither see nor speak with each other.

If you crawl under the hood of most marriages, child-rearing, employer--employee relationships and organizational culture, you’ll find that communication trumps every other reason for relationship failure. Without honest conversation and candid feedback across all of the various functions, disciplines and locations, the promise of collaboration as a substitute for a "failure to communicate" won’t make the slightest difference.

In too many organizations, collaboration also leaches into consensus-building. Neither consensus nor collaboration is a substitute for leadership. While collecting input from a variety of disciplines and challenging ideas from every angle is a good thing, making consensus the platform for decision-making is a dangerous byproduct of that approach.

As a leader, you’re challenged to make decisions in the best interests of the organization, its shareholders and other stakeholders. That's not the same as deciding in the best interests of the those you’ve consulted or making only the decisions with which most everyone agrees. As a leader, you must make right decisions for the right reasons. Consensus and collaboration are not proxies for weak or irresolute decision-making or surrogates for ineffectual leadership.

Here are three rules to help you get this right.

Start with this simple formula: Collaboration equals communication. In their essence, they’re not very different. Collaboration and communication are about exchanging views, encouraging direct dialogue and honest feedback, and wrestling with the conflicts and differences that will emerge from that process. Promote widespread communication, and you’ll find collaboration sitting close by.

Collaboration doesn't equal consensus. Consensus is not a substitute for decision-making. Your job is to make the right decisions, not to get everyone to agree on some decision.

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