Think You Know How to Collaborate?

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Wednesday, March 16th, 2016
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As the cycles of development, disruption and innovation seem to spin ever-faster, we are told more and more about the need to collaborate.

Put simply, that would mean ‘working together,’ but is that still enough, or does effective collaboration need more finesse, more fluidity and more focus?

In his first statement after being elected Liberal leader, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urged Australians to embrace disruption, saying “the Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves. We have to recognise that the disruption we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.”

I’d suggest that now is the time to be truly agile, and disrupt not just our thinking but the ways we collaborate.

The recent SustainAbility report, Orchestrating Change: Catalysing the Next Generation of Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration for Sustainability, examines the role that collaboration has played in the sustainability movement, asks how far and how fast collaboration can take us, and looks at how collaboration must change to succeed across multi-stakeholder initiatives and universal challenges.

This excellent report reminds us that “a favourite slogan of climate change activists in 2014-15 captures the current mood: To change everything, we need everyone” and that “with the recent arrival of the UN’s ambitious new Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris agreement on climate change, demands for and expectations of such collaboration are rising still more.” It clarifies that “a new generation of collaboration needs to be aligned, diverse, fluid, networked, transformative and temporary.”

I couldn’t agree more; we need to examine how we are collaborating, not just whether or not we are collaborating.

Firstly, collaboration should be a coming-together of minds, but not always the same minds; diversity is key if we are to address familiar themes in different ways. I’m a big fan of The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts and Cultures, a 2004 book written by entrepreneur Frans Johansson that uses the term ‘The Medici Effect’ to describe the innovation that occurs when different disciplines and ideas come together.

The title refers to the Medici dynasty, a wealthy 15th to 18th century Italian family whose support of painters, poets, philanthropists, physicians and philosophers helped shape innovation and lead to the Renaissance. The book explores the contributions of disruptive and unexpected innovations from people without particular acquaintance of a sector. Maybe it’s time to stop talking to the same people about the same things and expecting different outcomes, and start mixing things up a bit; recent biomimicry-inspired innovations show what’s possible when different minds come together.

Secondly, introverts and extroverts both have a place within the process of collaboration, even though they develop and communicate ideas differently. A recent Economist article, The Collaboration Curse, asked whether “the fashion for making employees collaborate has gone too far.”

Whilst acknowledging that “the point of organisations is that people can achieve things collectively that they cannot achieve individually,” the article notes that “the cult of collaboration has reached its peak in the very arena where the value of uninterrupted concentration is at its height: knowledge work.”

I’m a firm believer that collaboration is valuable, but that it should not make ‘deep work’ (or as professor Cal Newport puts it, “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”) impossible. Time to think is becoming a rarity amidst the push to collaborate in meetings, on calls and by e-mail.

Thirdly, real collaboration between organisations is vital; not just polite workshops at which we all admire the problem and then continue with our own work, but opportunities to challenge each other’s preconceptions, plans and purpose, especially when there is a strong business case for doing so.

I’ve recently been hearing the word ‘coopetition’ used in meetings (a mash-up of ‘cooperative competition’), indicating collaboration between business competitors in the hope of mutually beneficial results. We need much more of this; to change everything, we need everyone, after all.

But as I’ve pointed out before, there’s been a splintering of the sustainability sector over the past decade, with multiple small agencies all moving in a similar direction but almost determined not to collaborate in case such a thing led to amalgamations (and no, I’m not commenting on NSW local governments here). Organisations, alliances and industries must evolve with the problems they are trying to tackle. The SustainAbility report mentioned earlier warns us to “balance growth in the total number of initiatives against the scope and potential impact that any one can have.”

Lastly, if the way in which we work is changing, then the work environment is certainly looking different. Flexible working arrangements, the ‘age of everywhere’ and activity-based workplaces can all facilitate collaboration, so we must learn to balance the work we do best alone and the work which benefits from a meeting of minds. Australia’s green building industry has already made amazing progress by collaborating, often about the very buildings they occupy.

The oft-quoted African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together” was explored in Romilly Madew’s recent lead article in the GBCA’s Green Building Voice, in which she stated that Australia’s green building industry has reached spectacular heights “by testing ideas, taking risks, mastering new skills, embracing new thinking, challenging the status quo and by working together.”

This progress (fast and far) has involved both energetic collaboration and physical change to our built environment, and is to be encouraged.

We already have the collective knowledge to overcome so many of our current obstacles. We must remember that, whilst valuable, collaboration should not be undertaken at the expense of individual focus, and that collaboration is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Do you agree? I’d welcome your comments on how you collaborate best.

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