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Barriers to collaboration

January 22, 2021

It is understandable that collaboration is such a big topic these days. The pandemic caused many people and organizations to appreciate the extent of our interdependency, the fact that the best solutions come from working together. Of course, not everyone succumbed to this spirit of collective effort, but in general those who collaborated seem to have emerged stronger and with a more positive outlook than those who did not.

But now, as we move forward, will collaboration survive, especially in a business context? We have heard for years that people typically prefer to collaborate, that they like ‘win-win’ scenarios and behaviors. But turning that preference into a reality has proven challenging ……

The three big barriers

Number one: do people even have a common understanding of what collaboration means? In a recent (small) survey of suppliers, the overwhelming view was that many buyers say ‘collaboration’ when they actually mean ‘subservience and conformity’. So when we use the word, do we actually mean that we want to develop a solution together, based on shared input and mutual respect, or do we actually mean ‘Do what I say and don’t complain’?

Number two: measurement and motivation systems mostly get in the way. Although we prefer a collaborative environment, there are just too many factors that derail our good intentions. The need for speed, the pressure for short-term savings or rapid revenue, the difficulty of coordinating and reconciling multiple opinions. If our personal goals and incentives were based on the way we behave, the way others see us, the quality of longer-term results, then collaboration might rapidly flourish – but until then, it remains a ‘nice to have’.

Number three: external collaboration is thwarted by the absence of internal collaboration. Our same mini-survey highlighted how rarely organizations speak with one voice. Different groups and functions typically reflect different interests. As one respondent observed, even if different stakeholders were united at the beginning of a contract or relationship, their views often diverge over time. This leaves the counter-party ‘stuck in the middle’, trying to deliver something that satisfies all sides and in consequence ‘not seen as collaborating appropriately’.

So if you are serious about collaboration, you really do need to reflect at both a personal and organizational level and ask whether you have the attitudes and capabilities to make it a reality.

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