Collaboration Conundrum

In a 25-year organizational consulting career, most of my time has been spent supporting enterprises to move from leader-managed teams to self-managing teams.  The main reasons for this evolution revolve around profitability, productivity (improvement and innovation) and quality of working life (people engagement).  The extensive research in the organizational change arena consistently supports the need to balance all three elements and illustrates that when we favour one (profit) over another (productivity or people), any gains accrued are short-lived and eventually lost to even greater costs due to the imbalance.

Even after decades of research supporting this balancing act, profitability and productivity remain the primary focus of many companies with quality of working life for their people coming up a distant fourth, fifth or tenth on the priority line-up.  Why does this disparity still exist?  My speculation is most managers/leaders are either rewarded for or find it easier to develop and improve balance sheets, equipment and workflow rather than people.

So, what does an organization look like that delivers:

  • quality of working life to its people
  • innovation and product-service quality to its customers and
  • profits to its shareholders?

 

In essence, such an organization enters into collaborative relationships with its employees and designs collaborative work systems in which all employees can realize their potential as well as grow the company.  Among other design elements, a collaborative work system includes the following quality of working life principles:

  • freedom to participate in decisions directly affecting one’s work
  • a chance to learn on the job, and go on learning
  • optimal variety, not too much, not too little
  • mutual support and respect of one’s colleagues
  • socially meaningful work
  • leading to some desirable future.

 

When we design organizations to meet these principles what emerges is collaborative work systems or self-managed teams.

So, what is the conundrum with collaboration?  Well, consider the following quote taken from Collaboration Is Misunderstood and Overused in today’s Harvard Business Review:

My advice is to avoid relying on a collaborative relationship except in the rare cases
when a company objective is important enough to warrant some collaborative action
but not so important as to warrant a dedicated team.  Unlike a team, collaborators cannot
rely on a leader to resolve differences.  Unlike a customer-supplier relationship, collaborators
cannot walk away from each other, when they disagree [or] the other party is being
unreasonable or insensitive.
                        Andrew Campbell, HBR Blog

It would appear from Campbell’s statement that he is not in favour of collaboration because a leader is not present to resolve conflicts, nor can one walk away from disagreements.  Does this feel like “yesterday’s hype” to you?  Most leaders I encounter fear conflict as much as anyone else and the last place they want to find themselves is having to choose one side over another.  Furthermore, if society, organizations and people were willing to commit to not walking away until agreement is reached, war and other acts of violence would disappear.

Interestingly enough, only one of eight responders to Campbell’s blog disagreed with his advice.  I, too, find myself disagreeing vehemently with Campbell.  As his critic Tiberius Brastaviceanu states, Campbell does “not understand the new economical paradigm based on sharing and collaboration”.  I would add, he has missed the true purpose of collaboration which is to provide us with the experience, skills and tools to resolve our differences with grace and equanimity so we don’t have to walk away.

What sense do you make of this collaboration conundrum?

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