This post is part of the HBR Insight Center Making Collaboration Work.
Not long ago, people in Chrysler's headquarters joked that four strangers in an elevator qualify as a "team." So it goes with collaboration these days. No one works any longer, they collaborate. Collaboration leads to (of course!) innovation, engagement, creativity, and fulfillment. Good managers don't direct, they "facilitate collaboration." It makes the world go 'round.
Sound extreme? Consider how your performance review — and career prospects — will look if you're labeled a "poor collaborator."
But collaboration has its drawbacks. For one, collaboration takes time. You can't rush it and it's not free. Push too hard and you'll kill the impulse to share. Collaboration demands your presence even if you're thousands of miles away. And collaboration technologies like shared calendars too often create a chock-a-block schedule of meetings, many-sided conversations, and a tangled skein of emails, IMs, and tweets.
Further, collaboration does not always add value or lead to positive outcomes. Think about the enormous energy that gets consumed by people collaborating to accomplish workarounds — what I like to call remedial collaboration — that is, solutions to problems brought about by systems or processes that are antiquated, inappropriate, broken but not attended to, or just plain dumb.
More troublesome is oppositional collaboration. It may seem a contradiction, but oppositional collaboration often occurs in response to the shortcomings, the failings and/or the perceived injustices associated with a formal organization. Unlike remedial collaboration, oppositional collaboration does not seek to ameliorate or compensate for those shortcomings; it seeks instead to leverage them in order to strike a more attractive effort bargain, and/or to grow a counterculture and a distinctive identity based in opposition. Creative energy that might be directed to fixing formal processes gets channeled instead into defensive routines and dissent. For example, people may use advanced communications technology to spread rumors faster or to transmit potentially embarrassing information to competitors, regulators or the media.
Given these drawbacks, the challenge that many of us face — managers as well as individual contributors — is figuring out where and when and how much collaboration is really necessary. When does collaboration add value? When doesn't it?
What makes collaboration distinct, and so powerful, are the conditions that call it forth. Specifically, collaboration works best when people work together on problems that:
(1) Don't have an obvious solution — the problem addressed is not a routine one
(2) Lack structure — there isn't always a familiar process to follow
(3) Require collective volition — some sort of sharing is needed but cannot be mandated
Collaboration is valuable when people work together on things that require negotiation of meaning and order. Collaboration works well for problems that require imagination, structure and the voluntary sharing of knowledge and ideas. Collaboration of this sort can help an organization innovate — in large measure because it gives direction to people's creative energies — and it can help an organization adapt to changes in the world around it.
Absent those elements, however, collaboration is like the behavior we observe in toddlers in a sandbox: they play in parallel but they don't often play together.
How does collaboration work in your organization? Are there any projects where all three elements above exist and you're not collaborating? Why not?
Robert J. Thomas is the executive director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance and professor at Brandeis University International Business School. He is the author or co-author of eight books on leadership and organizational change, including Crucibles of Leadership (Harvard Business Press, 2008), Geeks and Geezers (with Warren Bennis, Harvard Business Press, 2001) and Driving Results through Social Networks (with Rob Cross, Jossey-Bass, 2009).