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Conflaboration: The five causes and what to do about it


the act or process of people coming together with the intention to collaborate, but it's all talk and no action

Collaboration is the life-blood of today's organizations. Whether the aim is to work better across an organization for greater efficiency and innovation or to join forces with other organizations to leverage combined strengths, the intention to collaborate is everywhere.

Here's the catalytic question: How is that working for you? Are your collaborations producing all that you hoped for? Or, are you confounded by conflaboration: lots of talk and maybe even lots of ideas, but not much else?

Here are the five most common causes of conflaboration and what you can do about it.

1. No One Is Leading

We love watching the TV show So You Think You Can Dance. In the show, young dancers are brought together to rehearse a piece, and then the public votes on their favorite dancers after each episode. The audition process for the show always includes one team dance number. A group of four to six dancers who don't know each other are given a song and asked to create choreography to be presented next morning in front of the judges. These highly motivated youngsters stay up all night choreographing and rehearsing so the judges don't send them home. A few teams succeed, and the results can be remarkable. Many, however, implode into a mess of hurt feelings and disjointed dance moves.

After watching for more than 10 seasons, we've observed that the biggest problem the teams face (other than extreme sleep deprivation) is they don't know how to share leadership. Sometimes no one steps up to the leadership role. Sometimes someone steps up who isn't acknowledged; it is hard to lead if no one is following!

Solution: Agree on how to determine who will take on a leadership role and how it will flip between team members. Will it be based on volunteering? Rotation? Expertise? Inspiration? Whose creative idea it is? For example, John Lennon was the official bandleader of The Beatles but when they were in the studio, the leader was the Beatle whose song they were recording.

2. Everyone Is Leading

Sometimes multiple people step up to try and take on the leadership role at the same time. This tug and pull is painful, and typically results in getting the team exactly nowhere.

The first evening Marc and I tried dancing Tango together, it was awful. Talk about disjointed dance moves! We renamed our version, the Tangle. Marc tried to lead but I couldn't seem to resist trying to take over. Following can be darn difficult! The key is that when someone is taking the lead, everyone else is obliged to exercise strong followership. Since we rarely develop followership skills - or even utter the f-word - it's no wonder many people assume a passive aggressive stance when sharing leadership: "Fine, you want to lead? I'll just sit back and watch then."

Solution: Strong leadership AND strong followership are essential ingredients in collaboration. The roles can switch between teammates, but they must be acknowledged and agreed to. What does good followership look like in your team? What does good leadership do? Talk about these critical questions so each partner understands what to expect, and why.

3. The Stars Aren't Aligned

People often wait for 'the stars to align' or the 100% solution. Today's business climate requires innovation and experimentation. Speed to market, novelty, and customer input are all far more important than perfection.

Solution: Plan to stick your toe in with a new idea, dive in and test the waters. Get feedback. Refine. Rinse. Repeat. Then go to market.

4. The Goals Aren't Aligned

Oftentimes we believe everyone shares our goals. But there are always goals that aren't shared or expressed. For example, a group of entrepreneurs collaborating may all want to get a new product out to market quickly and make a lot of money. That's quite common! But if one team member wants to make a difference in the world, while another wants to grow big enough to be acquired, and a third wants a steady income to pay off school debt, you have a recipe for disaster.

Solution: Do a Deeply Shared Goals Audit (pg. 97, Leadership Is Half The Story). Have an open dialogue where all parties express all their goals including personal ones. Pay attention to potential conflicts before they happen and emotions run high. Ask questions such as, 'How might we commit to everyone's goals?'

5. An Overabundance of Politeness & Positivity

The beginning of a new collaboration can be like a new love: exciting, exotic, giddy. You have extra energy and optimism. Everything is good. Sometimes, though, this initial positivity makes it hard to bring up issues or challenges.

Solution: If your collaboration is work-related, you must move past the infatuation stage and bring in decision-making, critique, risk analysis, budgets, feedback, planning and other less exotic but critical pursuits. Aim to always have a ratio of positive-to-negative critiques of about 4:1, even at the beginning of the collaboration. Take turns providing critiques, but only after you have built up an idea first.