What is collaboration?

June 2015

Group of people talkingPhilippa Hale MBCS, Director & Senior Consultant at Open Limits, asks: what is collaboration, what stops it and how can we make it happen?

Collaboration across diverse teams and between levels of the hierarchy remain the twin unconquered peaks for many organisations. It is often the fatal flaw uncovered in corporate disasters, and the silent, relentless drain on cash, productivity and talent of less public but far more numerous organisational restructures and transformations.

The following shows how teams from three very different organisations identified and overcame barriers to collaboration. In one case the teams were specialists within the same large IT function, responsible for different steps in the service delivery process managed in different countries. The other teams were from different functions including: finance, legal, sales, marketing, HR and IT.

At its simplest collaboration can be defined as: ‘To work with another person or group to achieve something’. Initially the teams thought of collaboration in terms of:

  • the tools: the technology and media for accessing and sharing documents and applications, tracking progress, gathering data for decision-making, and following processes.
  • the location: in some cases the teams worked remotely, across sites, countries and continents. In others they were on different floors of the same building.

However, all agreed that the real heart of collaboration was not just working alongside each other to deliver products and services; there was a creative, more intimate, proactive element and more in-depth on-going knowledge sharing, learning and debate.

Stories of good collaboration included doing interesting, challenging work, discovering a whole new side to people, making a difference and being recognised for it. Poor collaboration led to deep frustrations and anger over what were seen as avoidable blocks by individuals, teams and management.

Where these had been left unchecked, the stronger emotions had dulled to cynicism, small barbs of passive-aggressive behaviour such as not turning up to meetings or going against decisions made, indifference to new initiatives and doing the minimum.

What stops collaboration happening?

Human beings, it seems from looking at any news media on any given day, are socially and psychologically programmed to stick to and to defend their own.

Collaboration is also a natural human behaviour, but one that requires a degree of maturity, awareness of self and others, positive perseverance in the face of others’ reluctance and an environment where it is safe to explore the new and unfamiliar. Goffee & Jones’ Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? (2006) and Kotter’s Accelerate Change (2014) discuss the in-built systemic loops that discourage collaboration. It takes a resilient individual or team to question their own and others’ habits, behaviours and thinking.

The danger when senior management talk about collaboration is that they refer to best practice principles and thinking, which, while they make perfect sense, do not connect with the day-to-day experience of team members and managers ‘on the ground’. In each of these three examples, senior management encouraged teams to first get some perspective, then address the details that mattered to them.

Proceeding sensitively was found to be important, as there were clearly areas of rawness around attitudes and perceptions, behaviour and performance. The teams included speakers of English as a first and second (or third...) language from all continents.

Three barriers identified by the groups + solutions explored

The teams identified three barriers, and possible solutions to overcoming them. The highlighted barriers were the top priorities because:

a) everyone could take action and benefit immediately;

b) improving these areas would enable more in-depth collaboration in other areas.

Barrier 1 - Emails
The phenomenon of email ‘flaming’ is commonly recognised. When stepping back and analysing the specific language in their emails, the groups were quite shocked by the tone of some emails. Both managers and team members commented that they had become desensitised. Comments included: ‘It’s not nice, but they are always like this so we try not to let it get to us’.

Given that emails were the only actual words exchanged between some teams on a regular basis, this was critical. The language ranged from the unclear, incomplete and unhelpful, to the frankly abusive. Plus, there was limited understanding of the damage that a frustrated ‘cc’ escalation could cause, particularly in cultures with more hierarchical, high ‘power distance’ (Hofstede) relationships.

Solutions explored
The groups initially blamed factors outside their control. These included frustrations around (perceived or real) poor planning and prioritisation passed down the hierarchy, skills gaps, bottlenecks, misaligned processes and senior managers using unhelpful language themselves.

However, when their focus shifted to what practical steps were possible, the groups started to feel more positive and more willing to take on some responsibility for finding solutions. These included, for example: asking for a meeting, picking up the phone and asking questions.

After discussing the seven areas of waste identified in ‘Lean’ process reviews, one team identified ‘waiting’ for action from those interdependent teams as an area to work on. By using the ‘neutral’ vocabulary of the lean thinking, they could name their concerns and offer practical suggestions more comfortably.

Barrier 2 - International English
There were many examples in all the groups of language-based misunderstandings, where second / third language English speakers had done their best to articulate their needs, and the native speakers, perhaps having never experienced working in a second language, took the words used at face value.

Some examples of ‘false friends’ included the use of ‘you should ...’, which sounds like a command to a British reader but from a German translated as ‘May I suggest that you ...’ - so the intention was to be collaborative!

Solutions explored
Discussing these language aspects together was extremely helpful in relationship building. All parties were keen to learn how they were perceived and what they could do to help understanding. For native speakers, slowing down - considerably - was key, as was not using local expressions.

Other things included keeping sentences short and not using any waffle or ambiguous management jargon. Plain English actually sounds more professional and authentic, but many native and non-native speakers believe otherwise.

Groups created their own ‘meetings from hell’ checklist as a light-hearted way to highlight better practices for face-to-face meetings and video/audio conferencing and shared this with their bosses.

Barrier 3 - Prejudice
Having never met face-to-face in some cases, and with nothing but a few words in emails and general media images to inform their judgements, the teams had created surprisingly detailed pictures of the intentions, level of intelligence, technical competence, work ethic and values of the other groups, or even of people in the same department.

Solutions explored
One team invited the other party to work with them on highlighting and addressing issues together, one at a time. ‘The whole solution in the room’ was a phrase used.  Another turned process mapping into a shared, physical and visual activity, with giant post-its, a wall and marker pens. This filled many gaps in understanding and increased appreciation of each other’s knowledge, context and constraints.

In one team, where intercultural training was not an option, members volunteered to research one of the countries they were working with and present their findings. This included contacting their local native speaker colleagues and asking for their input. They found this fun, fascinating and a great icebreaker.


The changes in mood, attitudes and behaviour in each of the teams were quicker and more significant than expected. Within three months, there were multiple examples of small improvements in collaboration with significant impacts in delivery. Actively spending time reviewing successes and small improvements reinforced the shared sense of achievement. Six months on, internal and customer relationships and delivery had improved in all cases.

Importantly, in all three cases, a senior manager got involved, either at the start or when asked to support the initiatives being taken.

Collaboration breeds more collaboration!

Image: iStock/494374653

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