Collaboration is a Process

In completing the research for my dissertation, it surprised me that the most insightful work on collaboration was published in 1990. Written by Michael Schrage, the book carries the surprising title: No More Teams! The subtitle is a bit more reassuring: Mastering the dynamics of creative collaboration. Schrage is a research fellow with the Sloan School of Management at MIT.

Schrage defines collaboration as a process in which two or more individuals create new value.

His focus on creating new value is key. In my experience, the process of collaboration is a process of recombinant innovation. Another scholar, Andrew Hargadon, writing nearly twenty years ago described this process of recombinant innovation. In his book, How Breakthroughs Happen, Hargadon explains that recombinant innovation is hardly a new idea. Schumpeter understood that “most innovations are the result of existing ideas” (Hargadon, 2003, page 30). The process of recombining ideas — the process of innovation — involves collaboration.

More recently, scholars have referred to this process as “effectual innovation” (see, for example, Bell et al., 2018). This synonym for recombinant innovation links to the concept of effectuation, the logic process by which entrepreneurs uncover new opportunities by linking together assets uncovered in their networks (Sarasvathy, 2001).

The Undiscovered Power of Collaboration

Let’s move back to Schrage.

He maintains that most organizations fail to understand the importance of collaboration in an economy fueled by knowledge. Although he was writing in 1990, I suspect the situation hasn’t improved much.

Schrage structures his argument with some bold pronouncements.

  • Our obsession with individual achievement obscures our understanding of collaboration.
  • “[P]eole are locked into patterns that hide the real importance of collaboration. They’re viewing the world through lenses that obscure as much as they reveal. The Western tradition of intellectual thought doesn’t embrace collaboration as a vital creative behavior.”
  • Collaboration isn’t necessarily teamwork; and teamwork certainly isn’t collaboration. That distinction deeply matters.… Sadly, “organizations that confuse collaboration and teamwork are destined to fail at both”.
  • Collaboration describes the process of value creation that our traditional structures of communication and teamwork can’t achieve. It is an process of “shared creation and/or shared discovery”.
  • There is astonishingly little discussion of collaboration in the business world.
  • Collaboration is both undervalued and misunderstood. (For example, in Peter Drucker’s vast writings, he never mentions collaboration.)
  • The intellectual tradition of Western management has been to ignore or obscured the process of collaboration.

Why should we focus on collaboration now?

“Because we no longer have much of a choice.”

Increasing complexity has collided with growing pressures to develop technical specialties to confront complexity. “[I]t will take the collaborative efforts of people with different skills to create innovative solutions and innovative products.”

In truth, we face an “ingenuity gap”. As Thomas Homer-Dixon pointed out in 2001, the complexity of the challenges facing us has made our social and economic hierarchies unworkable. To generate more ingenious solutions to these wicked problems, we must transition to more network-based approaches and collaborative arrangements (Homer-Dixon, 2001).

Collaboration is the process of shared creation: two or more individuals with complementary skills interacting to create a shared understanding that none had previously possessed or could have come to on their own. Collaboration creates a shared meaning about a process, a product, or an event.…there is nothing routine about it. Something is there that wasn’t there before.…

Michael Schrage, No More Teams!

Designing and Guiding Conversations that Lead to Collaborations

In my research in practice over 25 years, here is what I have learned:

  • Conversation is the core technology of our collaborations.
  • Successful collaborations emerge from conversations with an underlying structure.
  • Designing and guiding these conversations requires mastery of ten skills.
  • No one is equally good at all ten skills. Forming cognitively diverse teams accelerates collaboration.
  • Collaboration is a continuous process of experimentation and adjustment.
  • Collaborations take time and trust to form.
  • Focusing on small wins — doing the doable — accelerates the formation of trust.
  • We can accelerate the process of collaboration by teaching the underlying skills.

“The missing element in most strategic initiatives is a successful collaborative approach.  Too many leaders focus planning processes on completing a document as opposed to spending time on what we called ‘catchball’ at Danaher.  The quality of the strategic plan is directly correlated to the quality of the collaboration. The Strategic Doing method adds to the agile strategy toolset available to managers who drive for results.”

Mark DeLuzio, President and CEO of Lean Horizons Consulting, Shingo Prize Academy Inductee, Lean Pioneer and Architect of the Danaher Business System, Author of Turn Waste into Wealt

You can learn more about our approach to developing collaborations with a discipline by taking our Leading Complex Collaborations course. Our next online course begins on January 17, 2022.