Common parlance suggests that two heads are better than one. This is certainly consistent with the idea that collaboration adds value to a business. It’s a truism succinctly put by Charles Darwin himself:

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

Background to collaboration

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, collaboration means ‘the action of working with someone to produce something’.

In and of itself, this is a fairly simple and straightforward definition, and if you’re in business, you’re already doing it to some extent. So what’s the big deal here?

“Collaboration might very well come about by accident and simply happen, it can, of course, be developed or enhanced intentionally”


The idea is that when done well, collaboration provides outputs that are greater than the sum of its parts and that it might sow the seeds for the next big money-spinning idea. As a result, businesses are scrambling for the answers to how to do it most effectively, through which they’ll gain a competitive advantage.

In the clamour by companies great and small to get the most out of the potential of collaboration, it has confusingly come to mean many different things to many different people. It has thus morphed into a field about how collaboration is promoted, organised and co-ordinated in the business, making it somewhat more abstract. For example:

  • It gets modelled and controlled like a business process on steroids. This is from Cisco: ‘The new paradigm for enterprise collaboration… has as its objective the dramatic acceleration of business processes… leading to continual business optimisation and improvement.’
  • It’s regarded as a piece of technology. E.g. sign up for Slack, collaboration is a given because you’ve got the tools to do it
  • Just put everyone in an open work environment, with the expectation that serendipity will sprout collaboration. A strategy even the likes of Google and Facebook follow right now

Collaboration has ended up as a company initiative, far from straightforward, with the risks that it doesn’t really work, becomes counter productive and possibly costly too.

I rather despair in how often these initiatives seem to suck the humanity out of them, missing the point and losing tremendous potential while doing so.

So what is collaboration really?

Collaboration is a relationship; or a configuration of relationships. It’s the quality of the relationships that determine the outcome. In other words it’s about chemistry. The nature of relationships is such that they take time to develop, and they require ongoing effort to maintain.

“Collaboration can get a bit messy and gooey. You’ll never quite know what’s going to come out of it”


Now, this can get a bit messy and gooey, because regardless of any systems and tools, it’s a human process. You’ll never quite know what’s going to come out of it. If it’s done right it will probably also lead to tension, friction and conflict at times, there’s no getting away from that.

For example, a co-founder I worked with had been trying to get collaboration working within her small company (of a dozen or so people) and it appeared that her managers and employees weren’t really engaging in it. What transpired was that they were engaged in the idea but ‘she was the boss’, the creative one who drove the company. As a result they didn’t feel they had the freedom to really express themselves so they deferred ideas and decisions to her.

Doing collaboration

As an inherent part of business, collaboration is an element of your business ecosystem. It isn’t a separate initiative. Whilst it might very well come about by accident and simply happen, it can, of course, be developed or enhanced intentionally. Yet rather than doing collaboration as such, it’s primarily about ongoing openness and learning because relationships are dynamic – it’s a process of cultivation.

This cultivation entails being patient while tending to several interconnected areas simultaneously. Microsoft, for example, spent a decade cultivating research collaboration with Korea and this programme continues.

How to cultivate collaboration

This will depend on what kind of collaboration you’re looking to cultivate. Two consultants working together on a project is different in terms of its complexity from fostering a company-wide culture of collaboration that works effectively or a relationship between companies, for example.

It takes some careful consideration and here are some underlying principles to help with that.

Basic psychological principle

One of the central tenets behind the power of collaboration is that it can help you to be more competitive. And, let’s face it, that’s what we all assume business is about. Yet collaboration is entirely the opposite. You really don’t want anyone involved in the collaborative process to be competing against anyone else in the process, because it’s going to undermine it entirely, especially trust.

To avoid this, like others you could be tempted to follow the well trodden path of creating a compelling vision, either in the form of a challenge, product, or other inspiring deliverable, or just an overarching company vision to inspire everyone around you. The intention is to bring everyone together so they’re all pulling in the same direction.

I’m talking more basic than that, and possibly more meaningful to individuals. In finding a common, unifying goal, companies can often choose a competition-based one. This might be to beat the market or a certain competitor. For some it might be to emulate another company we see as successful. Inside companies or across companies it could be that the aim is to beat another team to the post.

However, this has the tendency to draw our attention to the competition and what they’re doing. As a result the thinking of those in the collaborative initiative narrows down into a view of what their competition is doing. There is a tendency for thinking to converge. As a result the outputs, products, solutions, or services gravitate towards what the marketplace is doing and what the competitor is finding successful. There’s less creativity and innovation, and just more of pretty much the same.

An example of this is the Google Pixel phone. Whilst it may be getting good reviews, it was clearly developed with the iPhone in mind and it’s almost a doppelgänger. So, yeah, maybe there’s some functionality differences, but overall there isn’t any significant difference or innovation, not to a non-techie user at least, which goes for most of the smartphone market currently.

Focus is all important

When you have an externalised vision, particularly one that revolves around beating someone or something else, the focus of your attention will tend to get drawn away from your own performance and also what is uniquely ‘you’ (in the broadest of terms including your business). This disrupts the highest quality work which represents the best you can do. It also disrupts the act of learning and inquiry that is necessary for the continuous evolution of any successful business.

Instead, we can take inspiration from some of the philosophies inherent in Asian and Japanese companies in particular. It’s about changing the focus away from one which looks outwards to competing with the competition towards a core process of being the best you can be and learning while you do so, to improve yourself continually. This can be more meaningful for everyone involved too.

In a collaborative environment, this way of thinking can bring people together on a mutual journey of personal and professional development where knowledge and experience are shared. But it also brings about the best value work as well as more unique solutions.

Simon Darnton