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5 Pitfalls of Collaboration


Most people start collaboration projects with the best intentions, yet despite this the majority of these projects fail. How come? Why is it so rare to actually have successful collaboration? It’s dangerous.

Why is it so rare to actually have successful collaboration?

As Nilofer Merchant points out in her Harvard Business Review post that there exists collaboration pitfalls that even the best collaborators may fall victim to. Below, I’ve pulled out several that I think are the most critical and added some of my own that we should all be wary of.

1. Ambiguity
The fundamental premise of collaboration is that it is used to solve complex problems that are beyond the abilities of one individual. That means that each participant has to be familiar and comfortable with a certain amount ambiguity. Most people spend their entire careers accumulating knowledge in becoming an “expert” in one function and do not like feeling ignorant.

2. Unclear Roles and Responsibilities
Team member roles in collaboration projects tend to reflect the fluid nature of the project, changing from one project phase to another. This can be difficult for senior executives because it means going from being the “chief of answers” to being part of a community of people working towards achieving a goal.

3. Information Overload
For collaboration to work, information is rarely left in silos. Instead, information is shared and often combined in unexpected ways. For some people, this sharing can result in a feeling of information overload. (Check out our previous blog post on the effects of information overload) For others, who withhold information in order to retain power, the idea of free flowing information is threatening.

4. Threat of Conflicts
Collaboration typically leads to dealing with conflicting priorities. If you avoid conflict, or don’t know how to fight effectively, nothing will happen. When it comes to collaboration, knowing how to debate tradeoffs between many viable options means knowing how to argue with each other about the business in more open ways. Not doing this well, or doing it wrong is risky, very risky.

5. It’s hard to know who to Praise and who to Blame
Because of their very nature, collaborative projects are judged on their outcome more than the individual efforts. Leaders have less visibility into exactly who did what. If things go right, they worry about rewarding the wrong people. If things go wrong, they complain about no longer being able to pinpoint where the project went awry.

6. Lack of Chain-of-Command
Collaboration by its very nature is a peer-based. This is dangerous because should disputes occur there is no chain-of-command to aid in resolving difficulties and help keep the project moving. This can quickly cripple a project as there is little in the way of keeping collaborators from working on a different task should the project become difficult. Because it’s so difficult to have a chain-of-command when working with peers, having a clear structure that helps keep the project on task is that much more important.

Collaboration is not right for every organization, or in every situation. In most cases, there are ways to manage the above difficulties that will allow people to step into the unknown, create new solutions and get to the other side of the problem.

Your Turn

Have any other collaboration pitfall falls of your own that we should look out for?

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