It's all too easy to get to a point where collaborating just ... stops. 

When, despite our best efforts, we get lost in the maze of process that's part of any complex organization and tell ourselves we'll collaborate tomorrow, when we have more time. 

These are the times when all those stirring management messages about how we all need to collaborate to become a better organization suddenly seem like yet another workplace platitude, easily paused when we need to get on with a task and meet a deadline.

Yet collaboration naturally occurs in our everyday lives — at school, at home. Perhaps by understanding why we can so easily stop collaborating we can remind ourselves what its ultimate purpose is ... apart from just, well, collaborating.

Asking for Collaboration Kills It

Collaboration is a process, not an end point. All processes need a purpose, and should not be purpose in their own right. 

Yet organizations tend to focus on collaboration as an outcome-based activity rather than a mindset. Let's collaborate. Why? Well it's all about efficiency and being more effective, right? Actually, no. These are possible outputs of collaboration, but not the reason we do it.

We sometimes need to sound like a stuck record — 'why, why, why' — to get to the reason and ultimately, the purpose of collaboration. And it almost always boils down to this: it's all about the end customer. Better meeting their needs and their wants. 

We collaborate because we work in complex beasts and we need the input of everyone to make a difference for customers. We collaborate to solve complex problems, to find new ways of doing things, always with that end point in mind.

The business goal for collaboration is not the need to collaborate — it's identifying something to collaborate for.

Tools Often Drive the Collaboration Agenda

We need to collaborate, so we implement collaboration tools. Easy! 

But what are we really after, and how do we make the choice? For effective collaboration, we need to focus on conversation-based knowledge — fast, continuously evolving. Yet many collaboration tools are more tailored for static content — typically documents, or at best, wikis. These types of tools only encourage us to collaborate at a basic level, where we simply pull the knowledge we need from the network rather than building on it.

By understanding the end goal, allowing us to define how we want to collaborate, we can treat the tools as tools: they meet our needs, not the other way around.

Complexity is the New Norm

A simple approach to collaboration yields simple outcomes — learning, finding/providing an answer. But in a complex world that we now work in, one answer is typically not enough. We encounter new problems and new challenges daily. Management that has operated in siloes, with simple decision making structures, are struggling to cope with the level of complexity in the way business works and in what the customer is demanding.

Learning Opportunities

The modern complex business environment demands collaboration as the new norm. We are continually responding, having to try new things. And it is at this point that having more experiences, more experts and more ideas entering the mix, collaboration becomes critical to supporting decision making. Focusing the value of collaboration tools around this imperative gives them a sharper focus and a demonstrably higher value.

Change in the World Needs Change in Behaviors

Dependency is last year's model. No longer is it acceptable to expect knowledge to be provided for us. And when looking for documented knowledge, we mustn't assume that it will be authoritative. After all, the minute knowledge is stored, it becomes out of date. And has the author of that knowledge predicted exactly our needs? Unlikely.

So we need to change the way we work with knowledge. We need to open ourselves up to collaboration as a standard work habit. To do this, we have to admit something: We need help! But we do so in the knowledge that our colleagues are there to help us, not judge us.

From this point, we open ourselves up to not only experts, but everyone with their unique experiences and perspectives. We begin a conversation. Questions can be asked and assumptions can be challenged. 

This is the intersection of previously unrelated streams of thought, yielding us something new: ideas, solutions or more accurately, innovation.

Innovation: The End Game of Mature Collaboration

And I stress the word "mature." Innovation is a natural product of mature collaboration — an environment rich in questions, experiences, facilitating the connection of half formed ideas. Where people connect with people proactively. This output of mature collaboration is what can be termed "spontaneous innovation" — a type of innovation that is bottom up rather than top-down. 

Top down innovation is largely an ideation based approach, connected closely with product management. Spontaneous innovation occurs informally, yet is as important, if not more. It enables us to solve everyday challenges, and reinvent everyday as everyday innovators.

After all, this is what collaboration is all about. It's far more than just trying to get stuff done — mature collaboration is all about solving complex problems, thinking about the future, adapting continuously. We just need to have a purpose, something to aim for that encourages everyone to continue collaborating when we might otherwise hit the pause button and fall back on "task." Innovating, being as adept and creative as an organization — not just an individual — as we can for the end customer.

fa-solid fa-hand-paper Learn how you can join our contributor community.