When not to collaborate

One barrier to overcome is the common conflation of collaboration with working together positively

We know we need to collaborate effectively to solve the business problems we face, and so collaborative working is an essential muscle for leaders to build. But does that mean we need to break down all the silos so we can collaborate freely? Not so fast.

Inside our organisations there are derisions that collaboration has gone too far and become a distraction from getting the job done. Collaboration has for some led to dilution of accountability and damaged local performance; we need to take back control.

Like almost every conceptual debate in organisational life the answer is not either/or but if/when. We need to be clear not just on when we should collaborate but when we should not. One barrier to overcome is the common conflation of collaboration with working together positively. This leads to people saying: “will you collaborate with me?” as a euphemism for “will you play nicely and do what I want?” So when shouldn't we collaborate?

It’s not a priority. Don’t collaborate, ignore it

Collaboration takes up time and many organisations need to remember that time is an investment that sucks our ability to do other things. Most organisations need to develop the skill of stopping – being prepared to look at a problem that would be fun to fix and ignore it in favour of something more important.

We don’t need alignment. Don’t collaborate, just do it

In our hyper-connected world we can forget that some things are well within our control and largely don’t affect anyone else very much. We don’t need permission for everything and people aren’t as desperate to get involved as is sometimes assumed.

The answer is already clear. Don’t collaborate, sell

If you need alignment but already have the answer then you are not trying to collaborate, you want to sell your point of view. You want people to listen, be convinced and get on board. There is no shame in sales, and if we admit that’s what we are doing we will save time.

There are competing agendas. Don’t collaborate, negotiate

If our agendas are pushing in different directions, attempts to collaborate will quickly become political manoeuvring. No-one wins in these situations. A cleaner route is to recognise the truth and enter a negotiation towards an outcome that is acceptable.

It’s straightforward. Don’t collaborate, cooperate

When faced with a complex problem we need to gather a variety of perspectives, expertise and experience – to uncover the direction that none of us could be sure of until we started working together. But sometimes you just need to agree and divide up resources and action. This doesn’t need a meeting of minds, just a swift movement to action.

A silo is a pit or structure for holding agricultural products so different types don’t contaminate each other during storage. In an organisation team silos are similarly valuable for keeping things clean and separate. Being smart about what to separate and what to mix (and how) is not particularly complicated, but it does require some thoughtfulness about the context of what we are trying to get done.

Richard Watkins is the founder at collaboration specialists Let’s Go