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Creating better collaboration

Dr Karl Mackie CBE


Working together is essential for an organisation’s success, both with internal colleagues and contacts outside the business. Dr Karl Mackie CBE, Chief Executive at CEDR, explores the collaboration conundrum

Collaboration is a noble business aim. At its core, working collaboratively allows individuals and organisations to achieve shared goals in a manner that produces a more successful outcome than if they were to work alone. Whether it’s in business, politics, entertainment or sport there can be a range of benefits for groups that combine their resources. We can think of the success of artistic and sporting collaborations; musicians jamming together to produce a new sound; great cinematic partnerships such as Tim Burton and Johnny Depp who work through their films jointly; or the British & Irish Lions team working together to combine their individual talents. Replicating these collaborative successes in working life, however, from the local chamber of commerce to the boardrooms of NYSE or FTSE corporations, can be problematic to the point of being impracticable - even counterproductive.

CEDR, with its work in conflict management and dispute resolution, regularly sees when collaborations go wrong, from the joint venture where common purpose was never established to the multi-million pound project where the participants simply forgot to talk to each other. Therefore as part of our ongoing Capability in Collaboration [] project we have asked the public and a pool of academics, entrepreneurs and business experts on their opinions on the challenges and benefits of collaboration.

Trust in collaboration

It is vital that we have confidence that those we would like to collaborate with are committed to carrying their weight on a project or an initiative and will help resolve problems if they occur. This is especially challenging when working with people who we have not worked with before. Much collaboration takes place in a short space of time, and will rely on working with people whose behaviour may neither be easy for us to predict (due to a lack of experience of how they operate) or control.

In 2013 CEDR carried out a survey of over 2,000 UK workers to find out the public’s view on collaboration in the workplace. 54% of respondents believed that it is a fact of working life that sometimes it is necessary to work with people they do not trust, whereas a quarter said not at all or only in an emergency. However, whilst over half of us may have to work with people we don’t trust, it would appear we would seldom say so – almost three quarters of respondents would never tell someone they work with that they don’t trust them. Yet paradoxically honesty is the deemed the most valued component for building trust (stated by 69%) – but how can we ever let these untrusted know?

This is a considerable challenge for the collaborative leader, and a critical skill is the ability to recognise and deal with this unease but not let it derail the collaboration. There are also practical tips that can be considered to help overcome this difficulty - it may well be necessary to find a common ground to discussions early on and focus on establishing questions to be answered in order to solve an issue rather than trying to rush to solutions. Once there is a solid agreement on how to overcome a problem it is much easier to go forth and actually overcome it.

Leadership and collaboration

Trust is far from the whole story when it comes to successful collaboration - in our research a lack of trust is seen as the third most common reason for teamwork breaking down, after a lack of communication (36%) and a lack of leadership (32%).

Whilst collaboration can typically involve equal partners working together, the reality is there will need to be a leader figure to coordinate proceedings and make sure all voices are heard. For a large collaboration this may well involve different leaders for different constituents. Professor Nigel Nicholson of the London Business School states how a leader should be able to align the interests of individuals within a collaboration effort for it to achieve its goals. “People have to feel that their voice matters and that it will be heard”, noted Nicholson. He also uses the orology of the collaboration of an orchestra and the leadership of its conductor.

Risky business?

Taking the decision to collaborate with another party can contain risks and those involved must ask themselves if they are likely to be in an improved position afterwards. It is sometimes necessary to give up a position of strength to allow the process to evolve efficiently. As noted above, stepping out of one’s comfort zone and trusting others to carry out tasks which affect yourself can be the hardest part of a group project.

Polly Gowers OBE, CEO of Everyclick, an organisation working between charitable and commercial sectors, believes that there are lessons for business when it comes to allocating resources or investment to a collaboration “Collaboration is just like doing any other sort of business except it is more mutual in its benefits”. Gowers argues you need a hard metric for success to ensure both sides are devoting equal or appropriate resource to the collaboration.

Whilst there are joint advantages to collaboration, there may also be a perceived risk of coming out in a worse position than before. Best practice might be to have a cost-benefit analysis to see if the advantages of joining forces can outweigh potential negatives. If so, then the course of action should be to put adequate resources behind the project and to develop a trustworthy relationship with your partner. From there, it is necessary to realise that one cannot control everything about the process, handle that issue of uncertainty and make sure that you are providing the honesty, communication and conflict prevention mechanisms that are needed.

CEDR (Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution) is undertaking a major project into Collaborative Working and will be looking at this issue throughout 2014. For more information about the project please visit the website


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