ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

September 1998


Standing Your Ground In The Face Of Change

Turning Local Government Into A Business

Stop Trying To Be "Friendly" And "Courteous"

It's A Small World Afterall
Lucent's Performance


My Way Is The Highway
by Peter Block

What's So Super About Collaboration?
by Michael Finley


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


What's So Super About Collaboration?
by Michael Finley

Most of us have no trouble agreeing that excessive competition is tough on an organization and on the market in which it does business. A predatory environment discourages people from sharing information, prevents the formation of group goals and just generally wipes out teamwork. Competition, while momentarily exciting for the winner, leaves losers feeling permanently lousy. And there are many more losers than winners.

Though our work lives are dominated by this kind of competition, the parts we most cherish are collaborative in nature. It is one of the human pleasures to team up with others. It is a relief to set aside the anxieties and pressures we associate with competition and the scarcity mentality and get a hug. A hug is the base unit of collaboration.

If competition is the repository for our most passionate values, collaboration is the repository for our most revered values: peace, love and understanding. We have a soft spot for collaboration that our rough competitive exteriors belie. All our utopias, from socialism to a Brave New World to The Force, are collaborative in character. That is their appeal, and also, ultimately, their undoing.

Tyrants to the Right and Left
We are only beginning to become aware that there are dangers in the antidote to competition. Collaboration or team spirit, allowed to get out of hand, to become supercollaborative, becomes a kind of tyranny all its own. Worse, in some ways, than competition. People doubt this.
Supercompetition, like a Panzer division rolling over Poland, creates a spirit of over-the-top, scorched-earth absolutism, legitimizing whatever means result in victory: treachery, deceit, corruption, murder.
But supercollaboration has problems, too. It is the sworn enemy of individuality, progress, diversity and change.

Hallmarks of Collaboration:
Competition is brutal one-way, while pure collaboration can be brutal in a less direct way. Collaborative groups adopt rigid standards and impose them on themselves, foreclosing creative deviation. Think of certain churches, fraternal organizations and professional groups whose codes of conduct effectively shut down the thought process.

Groupthink leads to inquisitions of perceived outsiders, and stultification of insiders. Think of corporate cultures so symbol-driven that they cause individuality, and ultimately their own organizational freshness, to wither and prevent the truth from being spoken.

Blurriness. When everyone has input into planning, planning loses focus. Think of the way Congress, the ultimate collaborative body in the United States, works and you have a fair critique of extreme collaboration: gridlock, waste, lack of critical judgment and countless false starts. An organization that doesn’t pick winning ideas just keeps adding all ideas—good, bad, indifferent—to its knowledge and operations base. This inclusiveness results in democracy’s downside—bloat.

Slowness. Consensus doesn’t “snap to,” the way intimidated agreement does. It is a slow ooze forming and organizations lose momentum waiting for the ooze to arrive. In the time it takes your team to put on a play, you could have read it by yourself. Oftentimes, you could have even written it.

Leaderlessness. When everyone is encouraged to lead, the usual result is that no one does. Or leadership is replaced by alternating pressures: “You got to do it your way last time, now it’s our turn.” In prescribed collaboration, everyone is a leader. In reality, however, leadership is passed from hand to hand and it spends a lot of time in no one’s hands at all.

Defenselessness. When everyone knows everything, because sharing is so important, there is no confidentiality and no firewalls. You are at the mercy of whoever sees you are vulnerable and crosses the street to beat you up. “Flattened” organizations, where only two job descriptions may exist (“chief customer satisfaction officer” and “customer satisfaction associate”) sacrifice defense to simplicity. The Khmer Rouge sought to make Kampuchea a flattened organization and drove city dwellers into the countryside to destroy existing hierarchies. But hierarchy is often healthy. Effective organizations usually find they need role variety, including the roles of warriors and champions.

Interiority. Collaborative groups have a way of becoming cross-eyed over time, focusing on subjects of interest exclusively to the group. Politics often force collaborative groups to think in severe us/them ways and to invest all resources in immediate concerns. This tendency is why Lee Iacocca scoffs at worker-owned enterprises.

Mercilessness. “The many are stronger than the one,” is the motto of supercollaboration. It is also the motto of fascism. The fasces of Mussolini was a bundle of Roman sticks bound together. Individually, each stick could be snapped—together, they were unbreakable. A supercollaborative group is ferocious in its intolerance of outsiders and oppressive in its domination of minority insiders.
Collaboration taken to extremes creates an environment in which progress is forbidden and individual achievement is discouraged. To those who like that sort of thing, it will have the relative serenity of a hermitage. To those for whom hermithood holds no special appeal, it will seem silent and constraining, like a straitjacket and gag.

September '98 News for a Change | Email Editor
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