Making Collaboration Work

I’ve got a problem. Once or twice a week, someone approaches me and says:

I really like what you do. I do something very similar. We should talk and figure out ways to do things together.

The problem: this almost never works.  Let’s figure out why.

Intent is Necessary but Not Sufficient

I’m glad people want to collaborate with me. I increasingly have little patience for those who won’t.  And when I’m the one who won’t, I know I should hit the reset button and start the day over. After all, collaboration is the new competition.

But intent alone doesn’t cut it. I can feel it in my schedule. I hate to be rude, but I just can’t take any more meetings based on goodwill and karmic synchronicity. Millions are in sync with me; I’m in danger of feeling boring, not lonely.

A Clear Vision is Necessary but Not Sufficient

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. From a false assumption, any conclusion logically follows. So clearly you’ve got to be clear.

But clarity alone is worth not much. 20 years in strategy consulting taught me that a brilliant strategy and four quarters is worth a dollar. Despite what the Hegelians and the authors of The Secret will tell you, thought alone will not move matter.

Action Steps are Necessary but Not Sufficient

Before nearly every keynote address I give, someone says, “What our people really want are tangible action steps they can begin using the very next day.”

Okay, here you go. Tell the truth. Tell your spouse you love them. Make lists with five bullets. Fix your attitude. Meditate. Exercise. Be kind to dogs. Read your client’s industry newsletter. Listen better. Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Yes, that’s what people want. But try just giving action steps, and see if you get paid.

The Three Pathologies of Collaboration

If you’ve only got one of these three factors working, you’ve got bupkus.

More frequently, you’ve got two factors working.  But if you’ve only got two, you’ve got a pathology.  There are three pathologies:

  • Spinning Wheels. You’ve got Intent and Vision, but no Action Steps. You get no traction. You keep on talking, but it’s always to the same people, and you’ve already convinced each other. You need some action steps.
  • Grinding It Out. You’ve got Intent and Next Steps, but no Vision. You’re all processes and metrics and execution and best practices, but you never get anywhere, because you never figured out how to aim, align, coalesce, define a purpose, set a goal, do the vision thing. You’re only running a ground game, and it’s wearing down your offense.
  • Passive Aggression. You’ve got Vision and Next Steps, but no Intent. Your team is talking the talk, but blame-throwing behind the scenes. You’re all brains and no heart. You’re stuck in a 70s military strategy game, all Machiavelli and no truth-telling. You need some positive Intent.

Those people who call me up and offer to work together?  Wheel spinning. The solution, I’m finding, is to say, “Fabulous; you come up with one great Action Step, and I’ll buy lunch. Until then, let’s not “do lunch.”

Do you work in a grind-it-out organization? Swallow your subject-matter-expert pride and hire a motivational speaker. It’ll do you good.

Do you work in a passive aggressive organization? You’re far, far from alone. Go sit in on a 12-Step program and realize that you do not have to be co-dependent.


What do you think? What does it take to make collaboration work?

Note: if Anne Evans or Howard Schwartz are reading this, big props to you for an earlier version of the pathologies. And if you’re not reading it, write me and explain why.

13 replies
  1. David A. Brock
    David A. Brock says:

    Charlie:  I loved this post.  I struggle with this all the time, sometimes wondering if I have become too cynical.  Some thoughts:


    1.        Sometimes, I think it is naïve optimism on both my and the other person’s part.  We want to collaborate, but there is really no reason to do so, and we can’t create a meaningful reason.

    2.       Too often the intent/motivation is really, “Can you give me leads.”  I wish that weren’t true, but it seems to be.  People aren’t really looking for collaboration, but they are looking for new opportunities for themselves.  There are some even worse examples of this in some of our extended community, that pepper me with standard messages about joining their partner programs, Dear occupant, even when some time ago, I may have told the person these kinds of relationships don’t fit my business model.  Perhaps a case of technology run amuck.

    3.       Sometimes, I think it has become the consultant speak equivalent of “Have a nice day.”  I don’t think there is really an intent, but it’s a way of maintaining contact, etc. (I do have to admit a couple of cases of guilt in this area).

    4.       Finally, beyond an action plan, execution!  Too often these are an adjunct or expansion of our current businesses.  We are each totally consumed with our current businesses and don’t realize the time it takes to make some of these collaborations really happen.

    5.       Sometimes, I think it’s my own problem.  I find I am perhaps too much of a control freak.  The most successful, sustainable collaborations I have gotten into are really when I get someone involved in subcontracting on a specific project.


    • Chris
      Chris says:

      I completely agree with all that. Its spot on. Most collaborations are asked for from a desire to find more work, not bring work to you. If you have a full diary of paying work, you know how to generate more, and your uniques and scarcity value is on the rise – why on earth would you want to collaborate? Unless you are basically employing someone to take some of the load – which is an employee – not a partner or collaboration

  2. Heather
    Heather says:

    Great post and I finding a similar thing. People want to collaborate with me. Of course, I’m flattered and very honoured. More often than not I find that this collaboration takes me away from my own plan & strategy and distracts me.

    However, when collaboration genuinely works & I have several of these relationships, it really works. But as you say, it takes alignment of vision and core values, plus a commitment to take action.

  3. Jeff Whittle
    Jeff Whittle says:

    Charlie, thanks for crystalizing one of the consistent frustrations of the business.  Today “collaboration” is the latest euphamism for the old “partnering”.  When done wrong — and it usually was —  it was characterized by poorly defined (and almost always unilateral) goals, little relationship management and a decidedly short-term orientation.  True collaborators are few and far between.  Good post.

  4. Sstyer
    Sstyer says:

    Charlie:  As you know, I am fascinated by the whole idea of collaboration, and believe it takes high levels of both cooperation and assertiveness which I wrote about earlier here.  These align nicely with your intent and action.

    One way to approach the issue on a practical level is to ask and answer the question:  what can we do better/differently together that is larger than the sum of our individual parts?  Not an easy question, I think, but a critical one in getting to real collaboration. 

    On a fun note, I collaborate with another collage artist by exchanging just-started or half-done collages with her, to which the other party adds or subtracts as she sees fit.  A couple of rounds of back and forth and  voila!  we have a work neither of us would or could have done alone.

    This also works for collage disasters, when one of us has done something so awful we can no longer bear the sight of it ; )

  5. Chris
    Chris says:

    I think this is really all about routes to market – or rather lack of them. I know a lot of business peoeple with all sorts of great products and services – but they have no route to market. By that I mean they are always looking for collaborations, partnerships, networking systems, digital forums, to get their service talkde about and somehow, as a result, the seervice gets bought. Not takent to market and sold – but laid out for all to see and discuss, and somehow, bought.

    A lot of this meeting, talking, collaborating, synergy, sharing; isn’t really money generating work at all. A good friend says at any moment you are either earning or spending. Unless you are with a client progressing through a piece of contracted work or actively in front of a potential client who has a need and some money – you are spending money not earning it. A lot of what we do maskerades as work – whereas we are actually chewing the fat with like minded people who are just on the same path – they will never be clients.

    Secondly, shareing ideas is mighty hard because you end up trying to work togteher and building a path between your two points of view. Actually not a good idea. Can you think of one World Class piece of music or art that was a collaboration? I mean peopel who have a painting and try to join it up with another painting to make the two better. This team thing is really overdone. The team thing mostly works if someone is leading the team and secondly if the team starts at ground zero and creates something they feel they own.

    When two poeple come together and have already invested years of their life in a system or methodology, I ‘d be very surprised if the combined efforts were any better – compromise would lurk around every corner of their collaboration. And if you get enough people together to share and collaborate, what you end up with is some ‘corporate’ model that pleases nobody and interests fewer.

    The great thing about being a solo is you have something unique to talk about. That’s intersting to potential clients. Bruce Springsteen in a choir really doesn’t work.

  6. Bwhipple
    Bwhipple says:

    Great discussion as usual, Charlie. I agree in principle that someone seeking to collaborate is usually someone looking for a free ride to more business. Most often it is someone wanting to utilize my success to gain more success. I try to steer clear.

    On the flip side, I try to be generous with my time to help people who are coming along and want ideas from me. It is a pay-it-forward mindset that I enjoy, even though the tangible payoffs are few and far between. It seems like a good way to give back and increase my network.

    I do offer to collaborate with another individual or group if I can demonstrate that my expertise fills a logical hole in their offerings and I see a great personality fit.  I agree that it is a rare situation that actually works out.    

  7. Charlie Green
    Charlie Green says:

    I haven’t logged in to this conversation as I’ve been traveling, but I’ve been reading it avidly; great discussion. 

    I do want to distance myself a bit from the sentiment that people looking to collaborate are generally looking for a free ride.  That’s not what I meant to say, and if I implied it, my bad. Yes there are some of those; but a lot who aren’t. 

    What I find–at least in my experience–is that most people simply haven’t thought it through. They’re excited by the alignment of thought, by finding kindred spirits, people who think alike.  Heck, we all feel that. 

    The effect, unfortunately, is not so good. Whether people mean for it to be a time-suck, the fact is, that’s often the unhappy result. I just want to make sure we don’t ding people for bad intentions. 

  8. Dominique O'Rourke
    Dominique O'Rourke says:

     “brilliant strategy and four quarters is worth a dollar” best line I’ve read in a while. Thanks for the chuckle.

    Is it possible that people propose collaboration when really they just want to get to know you a little better? I’ve met with a number of people to develop professional relationships and it wasn’t until the third or fourth exchange (in person or on e-mail) that we found something that was a really good fit for collaboration.

    I understand that you don’t have the time to do this with everyone but I’ve found it to be a good source of referrals and I’ve had the opportunity to reciprocate as well.

    • Cgreen
      Cgreen says:

      Dominique, you express very well the pain I have in trying to handle these conversations.  

      My experience is the same as yours, nearly every one is an interesting person, often a good source of referrals, and so forth. And yet there simply often isn’t the time to have such first meetings occur in full real-time in-person mode.  

      Which suggests maybe a solution is to find a socially acceptable way to jointly shift the response to a “let’s meet and collaborate” invitation from a default of meeting to a more gradual sequence of connections.  Actually that would help a lot, it seems to me…Thanks for this productive comment!


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