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When Collaboration Doesn’t Work

July 30, 2010

I read an interesting blog this week from David Coleman, entitled
When Collaboration Doesn’t Work.  He chose to focus on the possible
causes for a low level of collaboration.  But his title question got me
thinking more specifically about the challenge of the situations in
which collaboration isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.


Frankly, sometimes collaboration is a poor use of time, sometimes it
doesn’t really help, doesn’t really help generate a better or more timely

You know when you hit those moments.  For me it occurs when:
1.  I’m sitting in a meeting and wanting it to wrap up 30 minutes ago
so that I can get on with what  I need to do,
2. It happens when I keep getting cc’d on mass emails, and I really
need to focus and the extra email input is … just extra.
3. It gets signaled by my internal thought of “just let me do this myself.”

General collaboration/communication tools such as e-mail, wikis, IMs,
conference calls, video conferencing, whiteboards and shared
documents as well as specific work tools (ex. web based project
management software like MProLite
) all represent various forms of
collaboration tools, but don’t really give a clue as to when they add
value and when “they don’t work.”

Here’s the thing.  I’ve worked in organizations that under-collaborate
to their detriment, causing 7 figure mistakes on a given day.  I’ve
worked in organizations that spent most of the day collaborating in
meetings to their detriment in getting things done.

So what’s the answer for predicting, explaining why and when
collaboration doesn’t work.
  I’m looking forward to hearing your
thoughts, but here’s a short list of answers that come to my mind:

Collaboration doesn’t work when the following exist for me:

1. Unequally Yoked: The team members participating in the
collaboration who don’t bring to the table the skills or experience
that add value.  If not participating for training, this in fact
detracts from the ability to meet deadlines.  e.g. they aren’t there
to learn and their input doesn’t help move the ball forward.

2. Language Skills: People who struggle with the language
and/or ability to present information succintly and clearly…
whether in the spoken or written form, cause collaboration to be
“painful” and I only do it if I really need something from them I
can’t get any other way.

3. On Stage: People who see collaboration as the opportunity to
share their opinion, pontificate, grab 5 – 15 minutes of mike time,
demonstrate their expertise, etc… e.g. people who use
collaboration for something other than helping move the
project forward in a more expedient, accurate, informed manner.

4. Preparation:  Whether it’s following through, or doing your
research, or updated the collaboration tool, or whatever the
preparation is, collaborating with team members who aren’t
prepared marginalizes the value and creates frustration for me.

I can think of more instances, and there’s probably 100 more
instances beyond my list when collaboration is invoked, but
doesn’t work.  Hopefully you’ll add your favorites to comments

Bottom Line:
Collaboration only works when it adds value.  Collaboration has the
capacity to either greatly add to the work effort or detract from it.
Collaboration eats up time and dollars, so it either needs to benefit
the process or reduce risk.   

It is fun to work with people who are experts at collaborating.
They know when and how to pull the information and feedback from
others they need, and do so in an agile, reinforcing way that makes it
a pleasure for the team members to contribute. 

How would you characterize yourself and your team/company,
when it comes to the collaboration/value equation?

 Collaboration that Fosters Innovation

3 Comments. Leave new

Bang-on. A big one I find is when people you are collaborating with are themselves involved in too many collaborations. They suffer from overload and are ineffective because their attention is too divided. They don’t have time to fully review the situation and often don’t do the pre-work needed to provide meaningful contributions. Another one is simply too many people assigned to a given problem. I think both of these factors contribute to what I’m calling ‘diminishing returns on collaboration’. I wrote a post about this if you’re interested http://www.wikinomics.com/blog/index.php/2009/06/15/diminishing-returns-of-collaboration/


Good comment and highly recommend your blog on the topic to others. I think we are both saying that the value of collaboration is strongly influenced by how much value add the collaborators bring to the table. Value add drops dramatically based upon over load, lack of preparation, ability to contribute, etc. At some point when the value add drops below a certain point, collaborators actually detract from creating value in the process, unless they are only functioning as attendees. My experience is that human nature and the need for recognition, amidst others, keeps many collaborators active beyond their ability to add significant value.



I use ManagePro to do all of my strategic planning. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to improve performance.


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