Staying at home to avoid exposure to Covid means a lot of TV time. My favorite TV pastime is watching team sports: Football, Basketball and Hockey. There is a common misunderstanding that teamwork and collaboration are one and the same thing. That’s close, but not quite right. A couple of decades ago, I was asked by a publisher (Berrett-Koehler in San Francisco) to write a mini-book on Collaboration. Sounds easy, right? Not quite. Covering this kind of topic in 25 pages, is harder than writing a longer book.

Teamwork and Collaboration are different but interdependent parts of the same process. Good teams find ways to collaborate, to win. Great teams find ways to work together, that makes their performance through collaboration evident. Elite teams take collaborative teamwork to a whole new, almost instinctive level.

You can see that in football (Brady and Gronkowski) where a passer and receive seem to have a second sense about where to connect. 

In basketball, the fast break is the ultimate rapid collaboration, which results in such fast, effortless scoring that it demoralizes the opposing team. Only through careful collaboration, exceptional teamwork and lots of practice, can fast breaks look almost so easy and effortless.

In hockey, the Power Play attacks with a plan that has invested a lot of time understanding their roles, and how they can best collaborate to break down defenses—and deceive the goal tender—to score.

A former professor friend reminded me that in business (and lots of other areas) Covid has made the collaborative process much more difficult. Why? Because at its core collaboration is all about people, figuring out how to best work together, to accomplish a common, agreed upon goal. However, the lack of face-to-face contact removes much of the non-verbal communication and feedback necessary to resolve differences and arrive at the best way to collaborate.

Studies show that 70-90% of communication is non-verbal; body language, facial expressions, tone of voice (or silence, which has its own tone). Video conferences only show the head and upper torso, but not the way a person is sitting, leaning, shifting, squirming, or generally sending non-verbal signals about whether that person agrees, buys in, supports and will work toward the consensus based action. If participants don’t like the consensus at all, and don’t, can’t, or won’t  “say” (verbal) or show it, make obvious gestures or expressions that teammates and/or co-collaborators can easily recognize as disagreement and then discuss, argue and agree upon the result.

Since few people want to take the time to read a whole book these days, here are two pieces on collaboration The first was written as a brief magazine article. The second was lifted/excerpted from my book. The say largely, but not exactly or entirely, the same things. 

After you think about this whole collaborative/teamwork area, you’ll understand why changing just a single member of a unit: a basketball team, an offensive line in football, or a line in hockey—changes everything. (The coach is "that person in authority” mentioned.)

To succeed in the era of Covid, understanding collaboration is more important than ever.  Key point: it’s all about people and how they behave and react—and work together.


Collaboration: Working together is more fun

©John Mariotti 2000

To get things done through collaboration, a group works together toward a common, agreed-upon set of goals.  Until the goals are agreed upon, there is a danger that the collaboration will be fragmented and not cohesive.  This wastes energy and demoralizes people.

Common, well understood and mutually agreed upon goals are essential to getting things done through collaboration.

 A group that wants to get something done must encourage collaboration by valuing the input of its members--even when that input does not appear to be immediately useful.  Managers, leaders and other people with authority can have one of two effects on collaboration--a stimulating one or a chilling one. 

The stimulation comes from cases when the person in a lead or authority position genuinely appreciates the input and attempts to use it --or at least incorporate it into their thought processes as the group moves toward decisions.  The chilling effect occurs when the person in authority acts with disdain, disinterest or open contempt of the ideas presented.  This is demeaning to the individual giving the ideas and chilling to the group's collaborative efforts. 

Positive reinforcement and support of the group by persons in authority positions is an essential part of getting things done through collaboration.

Smart people will try to use all the collaborative help they can get.  Smart workers will recognize the kind of manager they have and conduct themselves accordingly--this means active collaboration with a good manager, and cautious input with a poor one.  In either case, it is important to avoid becoming discouraged--even by a poor manager; they sometimes wake up and see the light as information accumulates and collaboration begins.

We are no longer in an age of bosses who can succeed by controlling and directing people.  Things are changing so fast that people want and need influence over their own destinies.  This means the opportunity for collaboration is great, but the leaders must change from old command and control behavior to the new one of leadership, motivation and involvement. 

The traditional way to control organizations was to have policies and procedures, which were followed and rigidly enforced

When conditions, circumstances and competition change rapidly, these old, rigid rules fail.  They become inflexible, slow, obsolete, and ineffective.  This is when collaborative groups of people can step forward to save the day.  Personal values and integrity will beat policy manuals every time for assuring that the right things get done the right way.  Collaboration will help to assure that the right things are getting done.

Unfortunately, unless there is open information sharing across all of the so-called “boundaries”-- between people, between departments, between offices or plants, and between customer and supplier companies, true collaboration is difficult or impossible.  Without sharing of information, the collective knowledge of the groups involved is not used to solve the problems.

A Checklist for Successful Collaboration

 Form a group that is likely to cooperate first, then collaborate. 

There should be something in it for each member.

Make sure the current situation is clearly understood by all constituencies.

Establish the leadership and sponsorship of this collaborative group and identify the natural leaders.

Set group goals and objectives, and discuss potential outcomes, timetables, and resource needs.

Establish measures of progress, both tangible and intangible and measure results and review how the group is getting them.

Provide regular feedback and document progress and agreements. Keep records of disputed issues and communicate openly and often.

Identify known obstacles and challenges and seek help in eliminating them.

Build partnership relationships to gain help and sustain progress, but choose partners carefully

Concentrate on new learning through the collaboration. Apply collective wisdom of the group to test the outcomes.

Celebrate and share the knowledge gained about collaborative success. Leave a legacy of successful collaborators to seed new teams.

"The only one who likes change is a wet baby."

"There is no use whatsoever trying to help people who do not help themselves.  You cannot push anyone up a ladder unless he is willing to climb himself. --Andrew Carnegie (industrialist)

"Build for your team a feeling of oneness, of dependence upon one another and of strength derived by unity." --Vince Lombardi (football coach)


What is Collaboration?

An Excerpt from the book Collaborating for Success, ©2000, Berrett-Koehler. San Francisco. ©John Mariotti 2000

Many people would say collaboration is teamwork, and that is close, but not quite right.  Teamwork has become an over-worked word in America.  Teamwork is not always collaboration--although collaboration is usually good teamwork.  Let's start with a definition.

Collaboration is an act of shared creation or shared discovery.  At the heart of collaboration is the desire to create something, discover something, solve some sort of problem, or get something done

That should be the case with team efforts, but it isn't.  Too often, teams are formed by just assembling a group of people.  They are assigned a purpose that is sometimes unclear, and given a set of goals (if any are defined at all) that they had nothing to do with choosing and are a long way from a shared creation or discovery.  Maybe a problem solving effort is the team's purpose.  Even then they are supposed to figure out how to be good team members while they determine how to solve the problem.  The two challenges are not even related--the first involves interpersonal and group interaction, and the second requires problem identification and solving skills.

One part of collaboration is a relationship. 

Throwing together a group of people no more insures a relationship than dumping a bunch of ingredients in a bowl insures that a cake will result. 

Teamwork can become monotonous, because similar problems often require similar solutions and the team members will fall into familiar, comfortable roles.  You do this; I do that; someone else does something else.  This is not collaboration--it is simply a division of work.  This might have been collaboration the first time we went through it, but it is not any more.  Collaboration is original.  Circumstances are constantly changing.  Thus the team described above is not really collaborating--they are just going through the motions.

Don’t confine your definition of collaboration to a single group or team of people. That is not how it works in many cases.  The most powerful collaborations are spontaneous ones.  The people involved work together in a technical sense, but not necessarily in a literal sense.  When a loose-knit group of people from different areas or departments (or companies!) decide to collaborate, real breakthroughs can happen.

Another part of collaboration is a process

Let's consider a more complete definition:

Collaboration is the process of two or more people with complementary skills and/or knowledge interacting to create a shared understanding where none had existed, using understanding to create something, discover something, solve some problem, or get something done.

Nothing in that definition says these people need to be part of a team. They may not even need to be in the same place at the same time.  What is important is that they engage in a process--a series of steps in a defined order that will lead to a desired outcome.

Collaboration is the end of a series of steps.

A group must go through a series of steps on the way to collaboration.  Sociologists have a shorthand set of terms, which describe this sequence:

  • Forming (getting to know each other),
  • Storming (fighting for control, power, etc.),
  • Norming (arriving at accepted group norms for how things are done and people behave),
  • Performing (Getting on with the successful work).

Another set of collaborative relationship steps are shown in the table below.  It would be nice to jump right to Cooperation or Collaboration, but unfortunately, it is often hard to skip the earlier steps.

Relationship Stages of a Collaboration

Peer Relations     Stance                 Key Characteristics              

Combative            fighting                Aggression, resistance, damage

Competitive          striving                 Rivalry, mixed motivations

Cooperative          agreeing               Acquiescence, obedience

Collaborative         partnering             Synergistic, interactive

Source:  If Aristotle Ran General Motors, Tom Morris, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997

The best you can hope for is to move past each step of the way quickly and positively.  The important thing is to know about all these steps, and to avoid poisoning the relationships in their early stages.  It will be much harder to get to collaboration if the storming or combative stage becomes bitter and hurtful.

Constructive disagreement

There is a widespread misunderstanding that to be a good team member and a positive collaborator means to agree with the group or be quiet when you disagree or don't understand.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Powerful collaborative efforts come from constructive disagreement.  Constructive disagreement is flexible, always trying to see other viewpoints that might change a person's perspective and position.  Destructive disagreement is a "take it or leave it" mentality, one which says, in effect, "I'm right, you're wrong, end of discussion!"  Failure to understand denies you the ability to be a collaborator.  The only dumb question is the one that is not asked.  Understanding allows everyone involved to pool knowledge and viewpoints.  Even if you have no new knowledge to apply to the solution, sometimes just a different viewpoint will expose new solutions. 

Four Powerful Questions to Build Collaborative Groups

  • "Will you help me, please?"
  • "I'm sorry, I don't understand."
  • "I don't know, but I will find out and get back to you"--and then be sure to do it.
  • The hardest: "I'm sorry, I was wrong."

Understanding the task is one of the most important ingredients in collaboration--what problem must be solved or what new discovery or creation is desired.  Another important part of collaboration is saying what you will do--and then doing what you said you would--because others are depending on you to hold up your end of the deal.

Collaborating in a crisis can happen faster than collaborating simply to generate positive change.  Crisis collaboration is also easier to get started, but harder to sustain, especially after the immediate crisis is resolved.  Many companies pull together when their existence is threatened, only to fall apart after they have weathered the storm. 

For real collaboration to occur, trust must exist.  Talking about collaborative behavior is “easy", but achieving true collaboration is “hard."


NOTE: In the end, great teams learn collaboration—although the journey to getting there is often rocky.

In sports, the coach & staff try to enable the collaboration, but ultimately it happens when the team members settle into their roles and trust each other to do their parts. When you watch any team at work—in a game, in an office or on a Zoom call—test it to see if these conditions have been met. (You will already know by the results, but watching how it gets there will help you learn how to do it, over and over.


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