The Collaboration Paradox: Why so many leaders sabotage their own collaborations

A proposed book by John Abele – Part 1

Collaboration is one of those things everyone thinks they understand, but very few actually do. True, some types of collaboration are natural or easy to learn, but the highest, most valuable kind, where everybody in the group is thinking creatively and sharing openly is extremely rare.  Now, in the era of Web 2.0, a wave of new collaboration tools are being unleashed so that even more and bigger collaborations are being announced daily. But most people won’t get much value out of these exciting new tools if they don’t pay attention to the crucial soft ingredients — the behaviors and mindset — needed to make collaboration really work.

From the time we start school and throughout our careers, we are taught and rewarded for the very traits that make it difficult for us to collaborate effectively. This situation is compounded by the way we teach leaders to rigorously assert control as often as possible so their authority is constantly being reinforced. Controlling people is the opposite of collaborating with them.  As a result, most leaders of collaborations are doing exactly the wrong things when they bring people together to collaborate, and the other people involved in those projects are essentially programmed to derail or resist collaboration.  This is The Collaboration Paradox.

In ”creative” collaborations, it is not just a matter of people pitching in what they know; the goal is to extrapolate beyond the group’s collective knowledge. As mentioned earlier, the skills we are taught to be the most important for success are actually collaboration busters.  In school, at work, and everywhere we are shown that success comes through self promotion and devotion to our own “kind,” whether it is a department, professional field, or political viewpoint.  Young athletes are taught to win at all costs and to celebrate “crushing” their opponents. There are precious few role models who celebrate victory without also celebrating “defeat of the enemy.”  When these same traits are allowed to dominate a collaboration, it becomes a very negative experience.  Only a few participants have any real say.  The rest feel intimidated or exploited, and as if their time is being wasted.  This type of “hollow” collaboration happens so much, that many people are very skeptical about collaborating. In particular, they may have the following fears, which inhibit them from really contributing:

•    Their best ideas will be stolen.

•    Their weaknesses will be highlighted.

•    There will be a hidden agenda.

•    The participants will have such different ideas that they’ll never agree on anything.

•    Certain individuals or camps will dominate.

Too often, creative collaborations become a pseudo collaborations.  They sound good, but are totally hollow.  With so many parts, players, and egos involved, simply managing the political aspects of such projects is challenging enough, let alone integrating the results into anything actionable.   In the end, the organizers may make glowing reference to the long list of divas they assembled, but often they have little to show for that effort and almost certainly nothing really new has come from it.

Check out today’s nytlogo152x23for an example of how collaboration and information sharing has lead to a recent breakthrough in Alzheimer’s.

Stay tuned – next week we will look at some tips and strategies to maximize the incredible potential of creative collaborations.

This entry was posted in Collaboration, Leadership and tagged , , by John. Bookmark the permalink.

About John

“John Abele is a pioneer and leader in the field of less-invasive medicine, For more than four decades, John has devoted himself to innovation in health care, business and solving social problems.” He is retired Founding Chairman of Boston Scientific Corporation. John holds numerous patents and has published and lectured extensively on the technology of various medical devices and on the technical, social, economic, and political trends and issues affecting healthcare. His major interests are science literacy for children, education, and the process by which new technology is invented, developed, and introduced to society. Current activities include Chair of the FIRST Foundation which works with high school kids to make being science-literate cool and fun, and development of The Kingbridge Centre and Institute, a conferencing institution whose mission is to research, develop, and teach improved methods for interactive conferencing: problem solving, conflict resolution, strategic planning, new methods for learning and generally help groups to become “Collectively intelligent.” He lives with his wife and two dogs in Shelburne, Vermont.”

3 thoughts on “The Collaboration Paradox: Why so many leaders sabotage their own collaborations

  1. John – good post. You touch on ‘The Wisdom of Teams’ which is a great read that covers many of these topics (though it could use an update). Or, even Kotters leadership concepts.

    I’m curious to know your thoughts on the separation of church and state (profit v. non-profit). I see very different styles of collaboration between the two and you probably have enough experience with both. How do you see the two areas converging/diverging in terms of collaboration?

    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks for the comment.

      Yes, I think there is a real difference between collaboration in the non-profit world and in the for-profit world. Neither world does it well…and some of the reasons are the same. Probably the biggest is that no one wants to lose control and although logic suggests that combining resources is a way to save costs of administration, decrease costs of acquisition, etc., the fear of not being able to control the shots offsets the logic.
      In non-profits the passion of the mission creates a non-examined and naïve sense of ends-justify-means. One talks nice about the “other organizations” for political reasons, but “our mission is unique” and the concept of “productivity” that requires using some of those evil business principles “don’t apply in our situation”.

      The for-profit world tends to look at collaborations with great suspicion but, of course, with a left brain, numbers-driven perspective. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it is a mantra. Unfortunately long term benefits aren’t measured, or valued, so the potential hard-to-measure and long term soft side benefits that result from investments in environment, education and similar culture building actions are very vulnerable to quarterly earnings.
      Some years ago I gave a talk at a medical meeting in England where I talked about the differences between large and small companies (see attachment). Then I asked which organizations the Physicians preferred to deal with, and also companies the business people wanted to work for. It wasn’t a surprise but small won out by a big margin. The explanation, I submit, is that physicians want the personal attention and ability to influence the organization. That’s inherently more likely in a smaller more focused organization. The business people, of course, were more interested in opportunities for equity and getting credit.
      The implication, of course, is that everybody likes collaboration so long as they control it.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Collaboration Paradox: Why so many leaders sabotage their own collaborations : Kingbridge Collaboration Blog --

Leave a Reply to John Abele Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *