Written by Kate Billing, Co-founder & Thought Leader, Blacksmith

COLLABORATION. We hear the word everywhere. Every single organisation I work with has it written large in its strategy, or values, or day to day parlance. It’s seen as the new way of working and something that everyone should just be getting on with. For everything. But there’s a problem.

It’s being chronically overused.

Occupational Overuse Syndrome is an umbrella term used by medical professionals and health insurers to describe a range of conditions that cause discomfort or persistent pain. This pain develops as a results of a number of factors present in day to day work practice such as repetitive movement, constant straining, forceful movements and constricted postures.

Based on my experience, this is a pretty good analogy for the way people in many organisations are feeling about collaboration.

Collaboration Overuse Syndrome, a label I’ve created, can be defined as an umbrella term to describe the range of conditions that cause discomfort or persistent pain due to the current trend to prioritise collaboration as a way of working across the board in organisations. A range of factors contribute to this including:

  • Frustration with too many meetings
  • Over consultation and ‘too many cooks’
  • Paralysed or protracted decision making
  • Failure to navigate heirarchical power to access diversity of thought
  • Conflict avoidance
  • Information asymmetry
  • Increased complexity (thanks to unconscious human behaviour); and
  • Reduced speed of execution.

When I step back and look at the commonalities across the wide range of organisations I see struggling with this, the same principal condition applies – confusion between collaboration, cooperation and coordination.

What most of these organisations are actually after is more cooperation and coordination on a daily basis with pockets of collaboration on specific challenges

But what they’re doing is trying to collaborate on pretty much everything without taking the time to understand and align around what collaboration means, what challenges to use collaboration for and how to do collaboration well.

So let’s look at how these three C’s are ‘same same but different’:

  • COORDINATION is all about effectiveness. It begins, as all three do, with an assumption of differences. Different people, different capabilities, different business units. All are clear on their specific roles and when/how to do what they uniquely do – together – understanding the relationships between them, their individual contributions and what the coordinated whole achieves. Coordination applies in ‘best practice’ situations where the challenge is familiar, the process clear and the resolution straight forward for example a production line or a restaurant kitchen.
  • COOPERATION is also about differences, but this time those differences come together not to roll out tried and true solutions as effectively and efficiently as possible. Instead they bring their subject matter expertise to bear on a particular technical challenge where there may be several potential solutions. Cooperation means being able to work effectively across perceived team or organisational boundary lines, working within agreed ground rules (such as company values, process and policies), sharing information, challenging constructively and using appropriate decision making protocols. Cooperation applies in more complicated situations where ‘good practice’ will be the best approach given there may be several ways to resolve a tricky challenge for example a customer service issue or the integration and alignment of cross-functional business plans and KPIs.
  • COLLABORATION is not about agreement and playing by the rules. It’s the friction caused by competition of ideas, the amibiguity of uncertainty and creativity. That creativity often comes from the sparks of disagreement, dissent and even conflict as collaboration seeks divergent insights and spontaneity, not structural or cultural harmony. Its highly experimental in nature, rather than pursuing best or good practice approaches, and participants must therefore be up for higher failure rates than would be tolerated generally in the organisation. Collaboration is always anchored with purpose – the pursuit of a specific result or the solving of a wicked problem in order to create new value. Collaboration applies in more complex situations which require an ‘emergent practice’ approach in order to solve adaptive challenges for example organisational transformation in the face of disruption or the development of a game changing product.

So how is your organisation doing? Are you under understanding and over using collaboration?

I invite you to take a step back and really reflect on the current state of play:

  • What of the Collaboration Overuse Syndrome symptoms are you experiencing?
  • Do we acutually mean cooperation and/or coordination much of the time?
  • Do we deliberately enter collaboration and apply it to the right challenges?
  • Is our culture up for the real work of collaboration?