It's success, Jim, but not as we know it: sixth characteristic

"Success may be different..." is perhaps the most exciting of the challenges for me, because I have seen such different reactions to it.

Sixth of six

This post is the final one in a series of six, covering the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working.

Success may look different to what you expected

The sixth characteristic challenge is that you just don't know what you're going to end up with.  And it would be a mistake to try to predict it too precisely, which makes project planners and budget holders in some kinds of organisations very twitchy indeed.

The thing is, that even when you can see the potential for collaborative advantage, this may be quite uncertain, speculative, indirect or long-term.  Because it depends on finding willing and able collaborators who want the same (or complementary) outcomes.  And as we have seen in the other characteristic challenges decisions are shared. Which means that you can't predict, let alone control, what the successful collaboration will look like.

This applies to the what, the how and the who.

An open mind, but not an empty mind

Until you've reached agreement with at least one other organisation or group about what you want to achieve, you don't know what you'll agree on.  Until you've decided together how to work together, you don't know how you'll work together.  And until you've agreed who to work with - and they've agree to work with you and each other - you won't know who you'll end up working with.  Of course, have some intelligent and well-informed guesses or working assumptions - don't have an empty mind.  But avoid being trapped by your research and early planning - maintain an open mind.

Messy play

Collaboration is an intrinsically ‘messy’ and uncertain process as the outcomes and solutions tend to shift in the light of unfolding events and opportunities.  Even once you have agreed what you want to achieve, you will still need to share decision-making about what the action is you'll take together to achieve the outcomes you want.

Sounds a bit risky....

Some organisations just hate this.  Their internal culture is one of clear prioritisation of resources, delivering against targets, husbanding their budgets carefully and not having a penny to spare for things which can't be guaranteed to deliver.  They won't release funds until the deliverables have been planned in.  They see the staff time invested in the speculative early stages of collaboration as unjustifiable, when there are urgent priorities which are part of the day-job waiting to be completed.  While this is understandable - especially if public money is being spent under political scrutiny - it is very problematic when much bigger gains might be made through collaborating.

Organisations with this kind of culture need to judge the level of resources to put into working collaboratively on a particular outcome, and weigh against competing demands on staff time and budgets.

Can't we just make them collaborate?

However eager for collaboration we may be, there will be situations where there just aren’t suitable organisations to collaborate with.  For cultures where wielding power (hierarchical, financial or regulatory) is deeply embedded, this inability to just make others do what you want can be exasperating!  When your senior people see collaboration as the answer, they may get very grumpy if at the quarterly reporting meeting you say "well, we tried, but at the moment no-one else wants to achieve what we want to achieve".

Managers need to accept – and to convey to their staff - that you cannot make people collaborate.  The team may need to learn to see ‘no thanks’ as a positive outcome: framed as “we agreed with them not to go any further on this”, rather than “that was a failure”.

And keep open to the possibility that you may need to use other ways to achieve the outcomes you want – for example through regulation (if you are a policy-maker or regulator) or incentives – if collaboration does not bear fruit.

A challenge? No, it's the whole point!

And then there are some organisations and sectors for whom the uncertainty inherent in collaboration is exactly the point.  Working with researchers and academics at Sheffield University's exciting Crucible collaboration workshop recently, there were a few baffled looks when I introduced this characteristic challenge.  People didn't see it negatively at all.  Not knowing in advance what you're going to find out and how you're going to go about it is precisely the reason why collaboration is interesting and worthwhile for these people.

What can you do?

If you are choosing a team to work collaboratively, look for people with flexibility and who are happy to live with rapid change and sudden uncertainty.

Progress is unpredictable – so don’t expect staff to predict it. Managers need to give people authority, amidst this uncertainty, to make medium-term plans.  This includes managing the tension which arises between setting budgets or spending plans with not knowing when the costs of work will become clear.

Six characteristics

So there we have it: the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working. I'd love to hear about any more, and about your own experience of making collaboration work despite - or even because of - these characteristics.