The Collaboration Conundrum

Collaboration is good thing. You get people working together, you get a company aligned around shared goals and ultimately higher productivity. With collaboration, people are not pursuing their own agendas, wasting company resources and blocking important initiatives. Cross-departmental silos fall and you have corporate bliss. Or so we think.

Collaboration has a dark side too.

Projects can take longer or stall out while you seek buy-in from all of the stakeholders, and creative concepts get diluted in the process of making everyone happy to GET the buy-in. You can also, in the case of web and product design, end up with increased complexity and a diminished end-user experience. Everyone wants their idea included. Everyone wants their features. Everyone wants all things for all people. And collaboration can make that happen.

Problem is, you rarely end up with an elegantly simple solution or compelling creative. Collaboration has the tendency to dilute things. Imagine starting out with a cup of rich, French-press coffee and ending with reheated three-day old drip. That’s burnt from sitting the heat far too long. Not a tasty prospect.

Without collaboration, however, you get silos, political turf battles and wasted potential. When everyone’s focused on maximizing their department’s budget and objectives, you don’t often find a company focused on creating a magical customer experience.

So what’s the magic bullet?

Like anything, it’s balance. And that comes in the form of a strong leader who can pull everything together, get the needed alignment, but have the ability to break ties and actually make decisions in the best interest of the customer and thus the business. Note that I put the customer first because THEY pay the rent. Make them happy and the business can prosper. Ignore them in favor of your local spreadsheet and you’ll see them walk away.

That appears to be what Netflix did when they rolled out their new pricing strategy without communicating clearly – IN ADVANCE – with their customer base. They made assumptions based on what they thought would happen – and where they felt they needed to go to drive company profits. Their past success clouded led to arrogance and a more inward focus. What they should have done was talk to their customers, letting them know they needed to make some changes and why. Get the customers to see how it could benefit them, give them some notice and press forward. In short, collaborate a little.

Seems they also didn’t do their homework when breaking off the mail-order part into a new brand called Qwikster and doing the basics like checking availability of the Twitter handle. Oops. Nor thinking through the confusion with the name.

Now you have what appears to be an ill-conceived strategy building on an ill-conceived price change rollout. This is a case where collaboration inside and outside the organization could be greatly increased along with leadership that knows what business it’s in and can execute. Seems they’re still figuring that part out and have only further angered their once happy customer base.

One key t0 successful collaboration is recognizing that no matter what you do, you don’t have any control. It makes the inner conflict you feel when people just aren’t ‘getting’ with the program a lot less painful. You create your own reality just like everyone else does* Sure, you can put processes in place to make things more predictable but everyone brings a different set of experiences, judgments and agendas to the table. No two people see things exactly the same way. Acknowledging that control is an illusion and letting go, serving more as a guide can improve the collaboration. People dig their heels in when they perceive they’re being controlled or manipulated, but more easily connect when they’re valued, heard and respected. Not everyone will get what they want, but that’s life. Collaboration is messy because people are human and ultimately unpredictable. But that’s where the good stuff happens. Allow a little serendipity and creative solutions surface. Even the process may feel smoother with less politicking.

But when it comes decision time, a strong leader is willing to take a stand and own it. SOMEONE needs to own it, or you end up with sloppy wet milk toast. Too often leaders are more worried about being liked and over-collaborate. Again, it’s balance. Effective collaboration is an art form not a science. People are inconsistent. Irrational. You learn by taking chances. And being willing to fail and get back out there again. You might not be collaborative enough and people will let you know it and sabotage your project. So next time out you over do it and get something less than stellar. What do you do?

Get over it and get on with it.

*Read Are you ready to Succeed by Srikumar Rao for a good primer on this

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