Leading Change: 3 Misconceptions about Successful Collaboration

White lines of a sailboat wrapped around brown wooden pins

Are you leading change? Do you believe in the importance of a collaborative culture in your company? Do you want to encourage successful collaboration between people and teams across organization units, even across companies?

Let me share a few considerations, which might help to avoid frequently occurring misunderstandings. Pitfalls in our thinking that create a false conception of what good collaboration is! I invite you to take a moment to reflect on the following three important misconceptions about successful collaboration.

1)    Vision and strategy come first and collaboration is an  outcome

The dominant reasoning in this misconception is that successful collaboration is an outcome of a strong vision and strategy coming from the top. If executive leaders at the top are capable of defining a strong and compelling vision and strategy, people will follow and successful collaboration will be a logical result. This misconception exists more often than we think. I regularly witness leaders having this reflex, particularly in organizations facing complex changes.

But it is false! The most powerful visions and strategies are built on involvement and collaboration between a broad range of people early in the process. Successful organizations handle change faster and more effectively, because they focus on establishing a collaborative approach to define the new direction and destination (vision), and the best way to get there (strategy). Collaborating successfully to define a collectively shared vision and focused strategy that people commit to! It is important for leaders to find the right way to stimulate this.

2)     Successful collaboration means everybody needs to have a say

“People always had a good reason for meeting. You’re sharing best practices. You’re having good conversations with like-minded people. But increasingly, we found that people were flying around the world and simply sharing ideas without always having a focus on the bottom line.” (Executive leader quoted by Morten Hansen in his excellent book ‘Collaboration’, p.12)

Do you recognize this? Mistaking extensive, crowded and long meetings for successful collaboration. Yes, sharing ideas, experiences and expertise across the organization is very important. But successful collaboration implies efficient and effective decision-making, and successful execution of these decisions! The goal of collaboration is not collaboration itself, but results (innovation, revenue growth, …)

Successful leaders stimulate collaboration that is focused on efficient decision-making and on fast and effective execution of these decisions. They make sure their organization does not get infected by ‘committee-fatigue’, which will destroy the positive energy and drive of people. They are very aware of their own role in the decision-making process, and know when to step in and take decisions themselves to keep everybody on course and to maintain speed. Or as Morten Hansen puts it: we need ‘disciplined collaboration’, not ‘over-collaboration’.

3)     Successful collaboration depends on the level of friendship and camaraderie between people

The misconception here is to think that collaboration will be easier and better if we are friends. In other words: the better our friendship, the better our collaboration. But this is not always the case!

I have worked with organizations that suffered from poor collaboration because people were afraid to discuss sensitive topics and to criticize each other. They were afraid to do this out of fear of damaging the friendship. Apparently, friendship and successful collaboration are two different things. Sometimes successful collaboration arises because of friendship, but there are as many examples of situations where friendship arises because of successful collaboration. And there are as many examples of situations where people collaborate successfully, without becoming friends.

“Leaders who want to create successful collaboration should focus on the ability of people to build high quality relationships driven by respect, openness and trust, despite mutual differences!”

Attitudes and skills to build high quality relationships across borders and despite mutual differences lead to successful collaboration. Leaders have an important role in coaching their teams on these attitudes and skills (read this previous article about the coaching role of leaders). Organizations that master this are more adaptable, more flexible, faster and more successful in dealing with change.

Are you encouraging successful collaboration? Feel free to share your experiences below.

If you would like to increase the quality of collaboration, then our Team Alignment Approach might interest you.

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Photo: John and Elza Bakker/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Aad is a global business advisor, change leader, senior executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and HRS’ services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

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