Collaboration: Expectations vs. Reality

Marketers often tell us they’re a “collaborative” organization or they’re a “collaborative” team. Agencies tell us they’re “collaborative” working with other agencies. But when it comes down to it, I’m not sure either marketers or agencies really understand what being “collaborative” really means or how to apply the term to their respective activities.

Unfortunately, the reality is that collaboration is being bandied about as a term that’s a polite way of actually saying something quite different. A couple of variations of this might be:

“Better include everyone we can think of to cover our collective asses…” OR

“No idea – why don’t we get a bunch of people in a room to see if we can figure out what to do…” OR

“Don’t care – get [parties concerned] in a room and make them sort it out…” OR

“Better meet with these guys or it’ll look like we don’t value their opinion…” OR

“I’m not going to risk making a decision – if it’s a collective decision then I / we can’t be blamed for it…” OR

“Lots of people in a room will make us look good…”

Call it what you will. Defined like any of this and the idea of collaboration is a gong show.

So what is collaboration supposed to be?

Wikipedia tell us that the definition of “Collaboration is working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals. It is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together to realized shared goals, (this is more than the intersection of common goals seen in co-operative ventures, but a deep, collective determination to reach an identical objective – for example an endeavor that is creative in nature – by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus.”

Still a bit cumbersome, perhaps, but the heart of this is around “achieving shared goals” or “collective determination to reach an identical objective”. And that’s very different from just getting lots of people to provide an opinion (which typically just prolongs a process).

To get the most from collaboration, here are some points to consider:

Identify the right people to collaborate with

And by the right people, I’m talking about both the size of your collaboration team and the value each can bring to the process. Ideas and contribution that bright minds can provide, collaborative resources also know when to step aside and allow others to take the spotlight – thereby allowing better ideas to be pushed forward – faster.

Eliminate the wrong people

Not everyone works well in collaborative sessions – bossy, dominating personalities for example, will likely limit the participation of others, thereby diminishing the value of getting people together in the first place.

Define common goals / objectives

Obvious, perhaps – but before soliciting help, it’s crucial to define the specific objective you’re trying to achieve and eliminate issues that may obscure that objective.

Define roles

The most effective collaboration teams have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. But if those roles aren’t defined or demarcation lines aren’t clear (as in the case of marketers with multiple agencies on their roster), then effective collaboration can become difficult.

Empower someone to lead

Collaboration isn’t an excuse to put a process on autopilot in the hope objectives will be achieved, and collaboration isn’t a meeting about consensus. Collaboration requires a lead (or lead agency) who’s capable of putting personalities and agendas aside in favour of achieving a bigger goal.

By contrast, collaboration won’t work if:

There are too many people in the mix

The old adage of “too many cooks in the kitchen” holds true here. If you’re facing large groups or departments that you want to involve in a process – identify the best of the best and ensure they’re empowered accordingly.

There are too many irrelevant people in the mix

 If collaboration is used as a forum for consensus, the lowest common denominator will emerge and the group won’t deliver the best possible solution to drive the business forward – defeating the purpose of collaborating in the first place.

There’s no time 

Collaboration can rarely be used at a time of crisis because crises call for speedy decisions to alleviate specific, time-sensitive issues or situations.

There’s no leadership

Despite its name, collaboration needs a leader to initiate a collaborative process, but also to run it. A true leader will identify the right people, set the goals, define roles and create framework to get the most of several minds working together.

There’s no flexibility 

One of the great benefits of collaboration if used correctly is that it can yield unexpected solutions or results. And if you have a team that’s working really well together you should be prepared for (and welcome) original thinking that takes you out of your comfort zone.

Collaboration should never be viewed as a default, cover-your-butt solution and the word shouldn’t be used as a catch-all for dragging people into meetings. Collaboration can be extremely powerful if applied correctly, but can be a boat anchor to progress if used incorrectly, or for the wrong reasons.

Having trouble getting others on the same page?  Maybe we can collaborate on a solution…


Stephan Argent is Founder and Principal at Listenmore Inc offering confidential advisory to marketers looking for truly independent insight and advice they can’t find anywhere else.

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