There’s been a lot of noise lately about “Collaborative Overload” and how collaboration is slowing companies down. This comes down to a matter of definitions of exactly what collaboration is and is not.

Here is a quick list of the most common reasons for collaborative failure:

1. Collaboration is not consensus

The idea that everyone has to sign off on everything is not collaboration — it's bureaucracy. We can all agree that bloated, poorly defined and yet unyielding processes slow things down, frustrate people and generally lead to lackluster results.

True collaboration is the process of soliciting input and feedback from people who either:

  • Have different points of view or expertise that can strengthen a piece of work
  • Act as effective sounding boards, problem solvers or emotional support when you are stuck or your spirits are flagging
  • Share an excitement about a particular goal or subject matter and as such provide an ongoing source of energy and new ideas
  • Are responsible for a share of the workload required to achieve a shared objective.

2. Collaboration can only happen in trust-filled environments

Collaboration is the process of improving and building upon one another’s work. This is only meaningfully possible in an environment where it is entirely comfortable to be human and flawed. The assumption in such an environment is that you are there because you are competent, and that if you haven’t nailed the issue at step one, there’s a very good reason for it — e.g., it's hard, novel or simply requires multiple inputs to reach its full potential.

3. Collaboration needs a mission (or purpose, or point)

Groups of people matrixed into endless “collaborative” work-teams, each beholden to a different manager with a different agenda is not collaboration, it is muck. People working together must share a mission that they are working toward. 

The alternative is that bureaucracy thing. People with competing agendas listlessly sitting through endless meetings or slogging through endless sign-offs and reviews. No cigar.

4. Collaboration isn’t micromanagement

Some organizations believe that collaboration means that every word or pixel requires a signoff before anything gets done. That's not collaboration, that's condescension. 

If you have zero ownership over any aspect of your work, and no decision can be made without manager approval, people checkout. Why do great work, when whatever you do, someone else will either fix it or change it without regard to your opinion, effort or input. Again, not collaboration.

5. Collaboration needs leadership

What is leadership? Leadership is someone looking to create opportunities, engage people around the mission and remove barriers. Leadership is one or more people who set a great example for asking questions, treating people with respect and keeping the focus on what matters.

Myriad logistical and cultural problems, issues and challenges can be added to this list. But the key question is this:

Is collaboration causing problems? Or is collaboration not what's happening in the first place?