Let me start with a sort of disclaimer: I am all for collaborations, and, in fact, one of the takeaways in my workshop presentations reads:
"Today we are not in an environment conducive to solo performances. Emphasize collaboration of interdisciplinary teams, bringing design, tech, business, editorial together to conceive these products."
However, I am also aware that not all collaborations are alike--or even successful. I am often puzzled how a collaboration in Project A, which is running simultaneously on our Garcia Media schedule with Project B, does not yield the most remotely similar results.
What makes for the difference? Why, if my workshop goals, incentives and directives are identical, two different projects can go in almost opposite ways?
Now an informative piece from the Harvard Business Review analyzes collaboration and gets to the roots of why collaborations are not as successful as others.
The author of the piece is Nick Tasler, CEO of Decision Pulse and creator of the Think Strategically & Act Decisively integrated learning system. Tasler gets to the two important determinants of whether a collaboration works. He believes that answering two questions may help with the success of a collaborative project:
What's goal of project?
What is the project’s purpose? It’s easy to assume that everyone on your team already knows the project’s purpose. “We’re here to solve the supply chain problem” or “we’re here to build a new product.”
Who makes the decisions?
Who will make the decision? At some point, your team will have to make a decision based on the insights and research it has gathered. And although defining the project’s purpose will be a huge help in guiding the way, there’s sure to be conflicting opinions and unavoidable tradeoffs. When the time comes, who will make the call? Is it a single person, or a vote? If it’s a vote, who is the tie-breaker?
Collaborations and Focus
There is nothing new about this: without focus, the most effective and talented team could not carry out a collaboration successfully. Yet, in my own experience, I am always surprised at the number of projects where the project leader does not have a clear focus.
Perhaps I am a bit obsessed about goal-driven meetings, workshops and projects. I always start with that question: what do we wish to accomplish at the end of the day, the two days, the full project? It startles many in the room, who have assembled with a team of mega talented colleagues, but who are ready to embark on a journey without a map. Those, I believe, are the worst meetings to endure. Out of courtesy---remember, the consultant is the invited guest to the house---we cannot be too direct about redirecting things, but at the same time we can't devote three hour blocks to discussing generalities.
In my most immediate set of projects, where collaborations are essential and required, sometimes the ultimate goal should be to take a newsroom to a digital first now approach for presenting information. Sounds easy enough that the goal should lead to the steps to accomplish it. However, the discussion does not take off, because there is no clear definition of how this newspaper wants to become a digital first publication. Much time is devoted to "what to do with the print product", and that takes away from the focus of what the newsroom should be doing about digital output.
And that leads to Tasler cites as the second important determinant of success in collaborations: who makes the ultimate decisions?
I have said it before, and I know that I express it in crude terms, but the best projects are those in which there is a decision maker at the top. Even in the midst of a highly collaborative project, it must be clearly defined who breaks a tie (if democracy prevails), or who decides at the end? The good projects or include that "son-of-a-bitch" factor, the person who will come in and say: "Now that we have studied all angles, and debated them to death, we are going to do this!"
I am rewriting my Takeaway on collaborations to read as follows:
"Today we are not in an environment conducive to solo performances. Emphasize collaboration of interdisciplinary teams, bringing design, tech, business, editorial together to conceive these products. First step of an effective collaboration is to have the goals of the project clearly stated. Second, determine from the start who will be the person making the final decisions."