Spend only a few minutes in the business press, and it’s easy to see that collaboration is all the rage.

Yet, collaboration is easy to talk about, but difficult to do.

Over the past decade, a small team at Purdue University has been exploring how to design and guide successful collaborations. We’ve identified five key mistakes that can derail collaborations anywhere from start to finish.

First things first: What is collaboration?

But before we get into how to avoid these mistakes, let’s be clear on what we mean by “collaboration”.

Partners create collaborations by creating shared value. In other words, collaboration is more than networking, or sharing information, or working together, or sharing resources. It involves innovating, creating something of value that is new, something the partners alone can’t achieve. Successful collaborations don’t pop-up overnight. They emerge over time.

The five big mistakes of collaboration

Collaboration involves strengthening collective habits that combine strategic thinking and doing. Over the years, we’ve seen collaborations go off the rails with five big mistakes:

  1. Bad behavior
  2. Inadequate listening
  3. Not knowing what shared success looks like
  4. Not having a written action plan
  5. No clear commitment to make regular adjustments

Bad behavior. — People come into collaborations with fixed mental maps and patterns of behavior. Typically, they have learned these patterns over years of working within organizations. Unfortunately, they have to unlearn these behaviors. Hiding information, or protecting turf, or staying within boundaries might make sense to protect a position in a hierarchical organization. The same command-and-control patterns do not work to build and sustain vibrant collaborations.

Collaborations require a basic commitment by the parties to behave in ways that reflect mutual respect and build trust. Without these rules in place (and a willingness to enforce them), there’s no hope for doing the complex thinking together that you need to build a successful collaboration.

Inadequate listening.– Partners in the potential collaboration need to take time to listen to one another. Too often, we see potential partners to a collaboration focusing only on their needs. They are not sufficiently curious to understand and explore their partner’s background, experience, assets, and aspirations.

Successful collaborations emerge when partners learn to “link and leverage” their assets to create new, shared value. If you don’t spend enough time listening, you will find yourself missing the opportunities. What’s worse, your potential partner can quite easily pick up self-centered behavior and begin to pull back.

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Lewis Carroll

Not knowing what shared success looks like.– When it comes to reality, we are all watching our own movie. It’s easy for us to project what our own success might look like from a collaboration. But if we are not careful, our view of success might not align tightly with our partner.

Years ago, when I was negotiating joint ventures in China, my Chinese colleague told me that this was a common mistake among American business managers. They would skip this step. In their rush to get to a deal, they wouldn’t spend enough time coming to a shared understanding of success. They would end up, as my colleague told me, with a partnership in which the partners were “sleeping in the same bed but dreaming different dreams.”

In my experience, this step in building complex collaborations is the most difficult and most time-consuming. But if you skip it, or don’t spend enough time really exploring what shared success looks like, your collaboration is likely to fall apart when trouble hits.

Not having a written action plan.– Too often, we have seen collaborations fall apart when people do not spend enough time focused on the doing. They have great ideas, but they have not thought through how to translate those ideas into action. Equally important, they have not clearly identified who’s going to do what by when. Without a written action plan, the chances of a collaboration being successful are dramatically diminished.

In team dynamics, it’s often the case that when the team comes in sight of their goal, they can get careless and skip over the commonsense, last steps. A shared, written action plan improves accountability, no doubt. But it also provides resilience. With a written action plan, you are more likely to know which way to jump when circumstances change.

No clear commitment to make regular adjustments.– No plan survives its first contact with reality. Collaborations must think through the practical details of coming back together and making revisions. Collaborations are complex. They are constantly shifting. New opportunities and risks are continually arising. If you don’t have a simple, regular commitment to come back together again and revise your collaboration, you will most likely fail.

Any complex system, if it’s going to adjust and adapt and learn, relies on a feedback loop. Making the commitment to come back together regularly provides that feedback. It opens the door for shared learning and adjustment.

The good news is that each of these pitfalls can be corrected with simple, practical steps. Reflect on your past failed collaborations. Chances are it went off the rails at one of these points. Next time, you’ll know better how to keep your collaboration on track.