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Too often collaboration is mistaken for the end goal, rather than the means to get there PHOTO: loicwood

“The objective of this program is to foster more effective collaboration” 

Sound familiar? Management trots out this common refrain when new technology or even culture programs are rolled out. 

We need collaboration, there's no denying that. When we collaborate toward a common goal, it’s a powerful thing. 

But collaboration is not an end point. Despite the statements, it's not an objective in its own right. 

Collaboration is a tool, a means to meet an end goal.

It's like getting a whiteboard and assuming it will bring with it our business strategy. It can only do what we make it do. Collaboration is the same. Without direction, it won't of itself change anything. It's only as smart as we make it.

Collaborate With Purpose

I’ve seen collaboration pitched as an end game many times. You've probably seen it too. A SharePoint rollout, designated collaboration rooms. New desktop apps. All useful components of collaboration, but without some form of clear purpose and adoption plan, destined to lie unloved and underutilized.

So what is the purpose of collaboration? The simple, but not necessarily helpful, answer is ‘anything you want it to be.’  Like all tools, we have a need first. We don’t go and buy a lawnmower then take it home and figure out what we can do with it. We invest time, money and effort in things that have a clear and distinct purpose.

Let's start by looking at our organizational goals. Heck, let’s even create some team goals. Having team goals is an oft-overlooked thing: the power of effective teams is enormous. And these days I see the team as the smallest unit of work.  

So we create some goals: what do we do for our customers, or our stakeholders? How can we leverage trends to do what we do better? 

Work back from these goals to our teams. How can we better utilize the knowledge, experience and problem-solving potential that we have to meet these goals? Leave out collaboration for now — that discussion comes later. Collaboration is the force to make it happen.

Giving Permission to Collaborate

Let’s use an example of a good, clear, company vision. Patagonia, the outdoor clothing manufacturer, has a vision statement that says: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” 

This is a good start. It gives great clarity as to the what, the how and indeed the needs of the customer. It doesn't instruct us how to do this, but it does grant permission for staff to use what is at hand to collaborate to achieve this end. In essence, it is saying: chat, challenge, disrupt, pilot. As long as it’s towards this goal, go for it.

Once we have a purpose for our tool, the other essential need is the missing set of instructions. We spend time providing guidance on how to use the individual digital tools (sometimes), yet rarely do we provide guidance on how to collaborate. 

What a conversation represents in business terms, why it's so important in connecting ideas and building relationships. Where and how to initiate and join these conversations. And once more, it gives us permission. This permission is absolutely key. We still feel constrained by expectations of management that we shouldn’t be spending time talking among ourselves unless it's to do with a specific task.

Goals and Guidance Direct the Way

Similarly, physical collaboration spaces — rooms that are designed for activity-based working rather than task-based working — will only work if we set out some goals and some guidance to encourage the workforce to use them. Otherwise they will only be, at best, places for people to hold ad-hoc meetings and take the occasional snooze.

What are we collaborating towards? How do we collaborate? How can we encourage people away from the safety of their desks working like robots on individual tasks? We must answer these questions before we can expect the buzz of collaborative teams in an open environment.

So Before the Next Software Rollout ...

So if you are rolling out some advanced collaboration tools (Office 365 is a great example: whether you like it or not, it is all about collaboration), think about how you plan to leverage them. The software won’t give you collaboration. It will support it. 

So find your purpose, create some instructions, empower your workforce. They probably don't need any help with their new mower, but in understanding how best to collaborate to solve customer problems, they just might appreciate it.