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Why is collaboration so hard?

February 10, 2017

Is it lack of trust, the difficulty of making a sustained effort, an inability to coordinate behaviors? When it comes to building collaborative business relationships, numerous reasons are advanced as to why success stories (at least at a substantive level) are so rare. This week, I became aware of yet another report – this time from KPMG and related to the defence industry – that repeats the mantra. In spite of exhortations by executives, businesses simply don’t collaborate easily or well.

At IACCM, we have the opportunity to study the dynamics of collaboration on a practical level almost every day. Having brought together a community of people who are intimately involved in the formation and management of trading relationships, we obviously gain insights to their problems. But the fact that we embrace both buy-side and sell-side, people from Legal, Procurement and Contract Management, means we have a unique community. A belief in the benefits of collaboration underpins our existence and makes us very different from other highly partisan and ‘competitive’ professional associations.

In part, it is this very tendency to competiveness that is often a barrier to cooperation. To a degree, competition is driven by fear and insecurity – a belief that ‘I will flourish only if others fail’, that I must be loyal to my tribe because those outside my tribe will potentially hurt me.

Reflecting on our experiences, I find the biggest barrier to be the fear by management that collaboration may in some way undermine the loyalty of their people or potentially compromise their personal control due to possible ‘split loyalty’. Expanding on this, the prospect of relying on the performance of someone from outside your ‘tribe’ is worrying, even scary. This is perhaps especially challenging in a command and control structure like the military, where traditionally you are either ‘with us or against us’.

Yet on the other hand, modern conflict may have made the military mind more nuanced, recognising that there are not such absolutes and that judgments must be more pragmatic. Which is perhaps why we are in fact seeing more rapid progress towards formalized collaborative networks (and relational contracts) in the defense sector than in any other.

Right now, we see success in situations either where collaboration is temporary and focused on a specific and mutual goal – e.g. The Olympics – or where there is a readiness to embrace new ways because there is a leader who does not feel threatened by the idea of collaboration and shared control. The biggest difficulty seems not to be to do it once, but rather to do it replicably.

Despite the push for greater collaboration, we must also recognize that doing things through collaboration is not always the most effective and efficient way – sometimes you just need to push ahead. I think the real challenge is having methods to gauge the extent to which collaboration is required or beneficial – and without that mechanism, it is easier to operate on a model where planned and active collaboration is the exception rather than the norm. We often see this applying within organizations, where individuals prefer to make unilateral decisions and it si only through rules and process that consultation and cooperation occurs.

So as I reflect on our experiences, I think the key to greater collaboration is not finding the mechanisms – I believe we have those; it is to determine the circumstances or criteria that merit the investment in a collaborative structure and applying appropriate tests to ensure counter-parties have the ability to collaborate. Maybe this is where we must focus some time and effort, to turn collaboration from anecdotal success stories into a suatainable and repeatable capability.



  1. Peter Spence permalink

    An older post Tim, but one that warrants discussion, particularly re the shift into the relational, knowledge economy. One key barrier to collaboration – applying the legacy of old managerial mindsets (thinking) to new organisational forms and ways of doing – the danger of . The power of collaboration will exceed competition, providing firms with the collaborative advantage of scaling up, innovation/creativity through increased diversity etc. Yet many still cannot seem to shake the shackles of competitive thinking (sum/zero mindsets) when engaged in collaborative ventures/enterprises, and this slows down the process. Diversity is a key element for collaborative advantage, as it brings along innovative thinking and complementary strengths, yet diversity also carries the downside risks of conflict that can lead to collaborative inertia – increased diversity equates to increased likelihood of conflict – yet conflict is healthy and vital for organisational success and innovation if it is shaped as constructive conflict – the development of Negotiation and Collaboration competencies will be vital to future success in our increasingly connected world.

    • Hi Peter – apologies for the delayed reply! Yes, I agree. I think a key point here is that organisations generally struggle to collaborate internally on a consistent basis, hence it is difficult – perhaps impossible – to develop ‘collaborative capability’ as an innate competence. When collaboration occurs, it generally seems to rely on a ‘special relationship’, with a powerful sponsor and dedicated team – essentially, it has to be protected from the rest of the organisation! This means success is rarely replicated. Can this change? I like to believe that emergent technologies can help. Certainly the shifts in working patterns (with more remote working) breaks down some of the historic cliques and barriers. It puts all ‘external parties’ on a more even footing. And to enable remote working, organisations have to adopt and use a wider range of communication tools and think hard about access to data. These are among the critical ingredients for collaborative working so may flow through into external relationships. I could continue – but that would then be another blog!!!

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