My regular readers know I’m currently infatuated with understanding the process of True Collaboration: The creation of a collective work-product by a highly responsive, interactive, iterative give-and-take process that yields something greater than what any set of individuals working alone could produce. My archetypal example is the work of the Beatles (the four of them plus their producers and other collaborators). Contrast the magic of the suite of songs on the second side of Abbey Road with the vapid drivel they have produced singularly since they broke up. True Collaboration is in evidence in music (particularly jazz and other improvisational forms), in improv theatre, in writing (Eliot & Pound, Whitehead & Russell), in science (Nobel collaborations), in technology (Open Source), in art (Van Gogh & Gauguin), and in some sports. I’ve been wrestling with how to create that magic in business.

This past weekend, we went to a Christmas choral concert that the daughter of some good friends was singing in. I’ve always loved choral music and used to sing in the choir in junior high and high school. You may not think of choral music as collaborative — after all, the composer and arranger tell you exactly what to sing, and the director tells you exactly how to sing it. But if you’ve ever sung in a choir, you know there’s a lot more to it than that. Just as a flock of birds can dive and swoop almost like a single organism, never colliding or getting out of sync with the collective formation, so too does the choir (a noun that is conspicuously singular rather than plural in form) acts as a single organism, picking up on the nuances of the rest of the members, constantly adjusting tone and volume and shape of the sound each expresses, to the collective will and energy and vibration of the whole. I’ve even witnessed tug-of-wars for power between a choir and a director who doesn’t like what the choir is doing collectively. If the director is wise, he or she will defer to the wisdom of the choral ‘crowd’ — they always know best. Good directors know their job is to be a benchmark and sounding board — gently reminding the choir of the tempo, the key signature, and what’s coming next, and letting the magic happen. And tactfully pointing out individuals who aren’t ‘with the program’ that the collective has created.

One of the songs this choir sings is an innocuous little children’s song called Wood River by Canadian artist Connie Kaldor. The lyrics are pretty monosyllabic and juvenile, the kind of thing a clever child herself would write:

Oh won’t you come with me, Where the Wood River flows,
We’ll watch it meander slow-ly As the sky turns from red to dark.
And as that sun goes down, We’ll throw our arms around
Each other and tell the dreams That are deep in the heart

Because the heart is bigger than trouble
And the heart is bigger than doubt
But the heart sometimes needs a little help
To figure that out

So won’t you come with me Where the Wood River flows
The little Wood River knows That it goes to nowhere but
That doesn’t stop it going Or them willows growing
Or all the lovers showing Their hearts to each other there

Because the heart is bigger than trouble
And the heart is bigger than doubt
But the heart sometimes needs a little help
To figure that out

So won’t you come with me Where the Wood River flows
The little Wood River knows…

The artist has put three subversive ideas in the lyrics that only emerge when, instead of being sung by young children, the song is sung by teenagers. All of a sudden, throwing our arms each other in the dark takes on a different tone. The ‘help’ in the chorus is no longer maternal, it’s peer-to-peer. And the lovers ‘showing their hearts to each other’ out in the wild at night as nature watches wisely and smiles, conjures up completely different imagery. And then there are the chords: Not simple major and minor chords, but cascading runs of ninth chords, expressive of anxiety, anguish and rebellion.

Now layer on the harmony, with some resultant major seventh and suspended fourth chords added to the mix, and listen to a whole chorus of teenage voices filling the room with this song, feeding off each other, moving together. Pure collaborative magic. I dare you to hold back the tears when you hear that chorus, a collective confession, a personal message, a plea for understanding. An anthem. [If you like choral music, you can buy the CD with this song here]

The biggest challenge in applying all of this to business, and to public organizations, is that True Collaboration is all about emotion, passion, love and complete honesty and trust. These are not attributes of most organizations — in fact it’s considered kind of inappropriate to even talk about these things in a business context. These are things you hide away until you come home at the end of the day. At work, they’re dangerous.

And so is True Collaboration. I’m not talking about coordination, the scheduling and assignment and organization of tasks that are each a part of a project and are each done by individuals on the project ‘team’. The vast majority of so-called ‘collaboration tools’ are really just coordinating tools. That’s not to say coordination isn’t useful — it’s vital to many large projects that involve many players. And it’s not hard to do — coordination is programmable.

True Collaboration is not. It’s spontaneous, unmanageable, visceral, impossible to control. Improv groups will tell you that sometimes what works for one performance fails spectacularly at the next, for no logical reason. If coordination is physics, True Collaboration is alchemy, chemistry with no real knowledge of the ingredients. It can’t be programmed, but it can be enabled — through study, teaching, encouragement, example, and, most of all, practice.

My research has got me to the point where I believe I could teach people enough about the process and the necessary environment to increase the likelihood of True Collaboration occurring. I believe I could facilitate the process. But no one is going to pay me to do so until and unless there’s a sense or urgency around a problem that only True Collaboration is likely to solve. No organization will take the risks of allowing emotion, passion, love and complete honesty and trust into the workplace if there’s an easier answer. So now I need to frame the Value Proposition for True Collaboration: A simple statement that describes when and how it provides critical value that can’t come any other way.

It all comes back, alas, to instinct. We live in an age when the Internet and other networking and communication capabilities allow the assembly and coordination of project ‘teams’ that don’t even need to know each other, let alone meet and work face-to-face. Traditional organizations will only survive, only have value, if they can offer something that ‘virtual project teams’ (with no overhead and a vastly greater talent pool to draw on) cannot. My instincts tell me that True Collaboration is that offering, that value. As hard as it is to do anywhere, True Collaboration is much easier in an organization where people know each other and can easily work together face-to-face, than in a virtual project team. And my instincts tell me that True Collaboration is the most effective way to turn a great idea into a successful innovation.

My instincts tell me True Collaboration is therefore a do-or-die proposition for organizations of every type in the next generation, if they do not want to become unnecessary and irrelevant, relics of the information age. My problem is that knowing this intuitively doesn’t sell it to anyone. Hell, I’m not even sure I can demonstrate that it would be profitable.

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  1. Jon Husband says:

    “True Collaboration” as you have described is actually how much work still gets done I think. There are business processes wrapped around almost all work … but when anything at all deviates from the process, along comes the unmanageable, the engagement around “what do we do know”, the ensuing conversation, the tinkering, the back-and-forthing between people.Isn’t the (generic for this comment’s purpose) value proposition “getting things done most effectively” .. .I know it sounds trite, but isn’t that what it is ?

  2. Judith says:

    Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) has some astute insights about the dynamics of collaboration:”What is the central problem of social relations? It is the question of power… But our task is not to learn where to place power; it is how to develop power. We frequently hear nowadays of ‘transferring power as the panacea for all our ills.” Genuine power can only be grown, it will slip from every arbitrary hand that grasps it; for genuine power is not coercive control, but coactive control. Coercive power is the curse of the universe; coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul.” (Creative Experience, 1924.)Her writings about power and democracy in the workplace are well worth reading.Regards! I enjoy reading your blog.

  3. I think the only way to prove that collaboration works in business is to do it. Ultimately it is a competition though, between infrastructures – a command/control infrastructure versus a collaborative business structure. The collaborative business has to have a purpose beyond mere profit, that goes without saying. The other thing that strikes me about most collaborative projects is this: they have a distinct/clear end in mind. Most business doesn’t, actually. Most business is set up to be sustaining. In terms of time and growth. Is it possible to set up a business and say: we will be in operation for two years at which time we will have achieved our end goal and then we will dissolve and go away? There is a bit of that ethic in the start up, I think, except the dissolve and go away is replaced by the IPO and semi-retirement…then the business dissolves…Any friends that I have that are good business people have it within them to keep on going, keep moving forward, building and growing the business. Never letting up. There may be a sort of Attention Deficit Disorder at play with real collaborators – which is the real danger in a collaborative business model. Business seeks consistency, a ‘linearilty’ and the erratic chaotic ethic of collaboration is anthema to an org chart. In the end, it may be a character issue. The question may not be, can collaboration work in business? but/rather, can collaborators work in business?

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Jon: I think some true collaboration occurs despite the hierarchy in most big organizations (and a lot of small ones), but not very much. Most decisions are made by those in power, without consultation let alone collaboration. Work is broken down into tasks and those task are assigned to individuals, and they are rewarded for just shutting up and doing what they’re told, without thought or question. Mavericks who break this pattern are generally punished. The true collaboration that occurs is one-on-one among trusted peers — and it’s quite rare.Judith: You’re the second person to point me to wise Ms. Follett’s comments. She certainly was ahead of her time.Brian: That’s a good way to put it. I think people are smart enough to realize and take advantage of the rare opportunities for collaboration in business. The challenge is to create an environment in which more true collaboration is tolerated and encouraged, which is all about reward, open-mindedness, innovation, and empowerment. Ultimately, its scarcity is yet another problem caused by management, often trying to be efficient, trying to do the right thing, and ultimately just getting in the way.

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