Does Your Team Collaborate? Or Fauxllaborate?

January 29, 2020

Business Leaders: Is Your Approach Truly Collaborative?

I am a straight shooter, so let me keep it real.

Collaboration is essential for two primary reasons. Why?

  1. No single individual has enough knowledge to solve cross-disciplinary problems.

  2. Our successes and failures are shared with other stakeholders, so our destinies are intertwined.

It therefore stands to reason that shared outcomes should require shared decision-making, aka collaboration. And yet, in my experience, successful collaboration comes down to something very basic. It is: Solving a cross-disciplinary problem to drive to a shared outcome. 

Effective collaboration is notoriously difficult. I mean, do a quick Google search for “Collaboration.” There are plenty of frameworks, processes, team-building exercises and responsibility matrices out there. All are designed to help you do it better and solve hard problems.

When an organization says, “We need better collaboration,” what it is, in fact, saying is: “We are not solving problems well enough.” When you dig deeper, however, you find that a lot of what is assumed to be collaboration really isn’t. I think about it in terms of real versus fake collaboration.

What do I mean by that?

Bringing an End to Fauxllaboration

Let me first explain what I mean by fake collaboration, which I am going to cheekily call “fauxllaboration.”

It is the act of making people feel included in a decision or output they don’t in fact have control or any real say over. It is designed to make people feel included and gives them the illusion of collaboration.

It is communication disguised as collaboration.

Fauxllaboration is about pretending to seek input from various stakeholders to get buy-in for our ideas. This often creates frustration and sometimes even resentment, as stakeholders realize that there was never a real intention to account for their inputs and opinions.

Here are a few common examples of fauxllaboration:

  • CC in emails. This technique is a CYA move and even if you specifically ask for ideas, suggestions and contributions, few people feel empowered enough to “Reply All” with their ideas.

  • Large meetings. This is the real-life version of email CC. The format is both exhausting and overwhelming, between those who don’t care, those who care but have nothing to suggest, and those who have great ideas but feel too intimidated to suggest them. It serves more as an FYI, than an actual forum for collaboration. 

  • Inauthentic team decision-making. A manager might say “after consulting with many of you, I have decided that we will change the Go to Market strategy.” While the appearance of collective input is put forth, decisions are made in a vacuum, with the responsibility to execute placed upon others.

Intuitively, we might think that successful collaboration is simply a matter of aligning all of the personal agendas into a singular agenda, based on the needs of customers and prospects. 

So all we just need to figure out how to align all these folks to a single mission, vision, and outcome. Right?


Reaching a State of Real Collaboration

As the field of Behavioral Economics makes clear, the most powerful motivator is intrinsic. It comes from within, from self-interest: People do their best work only when they have a personal desire to do so.

The key to productive collaboration, therefore, is ensuring that all participants have a selfish reason to collaborate, or as Nassim Nicolas Taleb calls it, “skin in the game.” In other words, collaborators must work on a common problem, one whose solution everyone seeks with equal intensity. This might sound obvious, but we so often expect contributors (like subject matter experts) to behave like collaborators when they don’t have skin in the game and therefore are unlikely to contribute in the same way. Specifically, those who have no skin in the game are unlikely to seek common ground (they don’t need to) or, rather counterintuitively, make concessions that would allow a constructive outcome (because they aren’t an empowered stakeholder).

The right empowered stakeholders are naturally aligned. They seek similar outcomes, run the same risk and have similar decision-making powers. They are intrinsically motivated to reach and support a common solution. They don’t need external motivation, additional incentives, rigid processes or artificial controls – they just need a clear agenda, a little time and space, and maybe a gentle nudge to participate.  

So it is essential to clearly distinguish between the three main types of stakeholders:

  • Collaborators, those with real skin in the game, whose KPIs are tied to the solution that the collaboration is meant to bring about. They care about the WHY.

  • Contributors, those who might be called upon to participate for their expertise but whose interest is limited to providing input. They care about the HOW.

  • Consumers, those who are often mistakenly enlisted as collaborators. They should really be receiving communication from the collaboration team once significant milestones have been reached. They only care about the WHAT.

Let me give you an excellent example of real collaboration, led by Joshua Graff, UK Country Manager & VP EMEA & LATAM at LinkedIn. To build the region’s annual strategy, he held a day-long workshop for all of his direct reports as well as cross-functional leaders. In this workshop, the group delved into business performance, goals, and key initiatives. Using a ‘design thinking’ framework, the team brainstormed every possible strategy and set of actions they could take to increase customer value, and increase the performance of their business. After some discussion — including some tense but passionate and constructive debate— the entire group prioritized those efforts which would yield the highest returns (as well as committing to a couple of big bets), and the annual strategy was agreed upon.

Everyone present had skin in the game and had a clear interest in contributing their perspective – because they all had to live with the consequences. They were all bought-in before the session started and they were all bought-in to its outcomes.

As a leader, you are responsible for building the right conditions for collaboration: the right infrastructure, team design, and principles to drive successful, real, collaboration.   

Practical Tips for Improved Collaboration

  • Be ruthless about team selection. Apply the “skin in the game” litmus test to every prospective participant and make sure their role and responsibilities are clear.

  • Tell your collaborators WHY they were selected. Remind them of their specific interest in the success of the project. Don’t assume they will immediately connect the dots.

  • Define upfront the key outcomes. Determine who the audience will be and what communication they will receive about the progress and success of the project. Inform them. You don’t want them to feel left out.

  • Do the initial brainstorm quickly, assuming no constraints and think big (don’t overthink the suggestions).

  • Use a prioritization matrix once you have everything listed. Y axis is impact and X is likelihood of success.

  • Recognize not everyone will agree on everything. It’s up to the leader to make the call. Others may disagree, but they still need to commit.

  • Execute and regularly check-in on progress.

Say goodbye to fauxllaboration and commit to the challenging but worthwhile journey toward legitimate collaboration.

Let’s make the 2020s the decade of foresight, not hindsight. 🤓

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