5 Lessons in Collaboration

If you ask people to think of the favorite thing they have ever worked on, they usually choose a collaborative project. However if you then ask people to think of their worst project they also tend to choose a collaboration as well. I’m fascinated as to why this is, and what is it about collaborations that can be both so satisfying or so frustrating.

As an open innovation agency we like to think we know a thing or two about collaboration. Almost all of the work we do is in partnership with others and so we know we are pretty good at it. However we recently learned a lot from a collaboration that we were involved with that didn’t go so well. They say you learn more from your failures rather than from your successes so thought we’d share some of those lessons here.

To cut a long story short, we became aware of a big bid for a piece of work in another country that perfectly matched our skills and experience, however we suspected our chance of getting the work was slim giving our lack of local knowledge and presence. Therefore we were pleased when we were approached by another company based in that country who, whilst they didn’t really appear to have the right skills, could provide the local insight we were missing. Below is a summary of our lessons learned.

  • Lesson 1 – Collaboration starts with good conversations – In this case, despite making the effort to make multiple visits and numerous attempts to arrange calls, our partner simply didn’t make any time to talk, and was very transactional from the start. We tried not to take it too personally and were busy too, but as things got more challenging, the lack of any strong relationship really showed. We actually forged another excellent partnership with another company in the same country around the same time, which started out using scratchy skype calls followed by face to face meetings, about which we are confident will grow from strength to strength.
  • Lesson 2 – Collaboration only happens between equals – Our partners were a much larger company and used their size to actively undermine us as the smaller player, even though we had the specific knowledge which they didn’t. Whilst there are always differences in size or influence in any situation, I increasingly think true collaboration can only really happen between equals, or at least between people and organisations that have mutual trust, and a similar amount at stake in the collaboration else the imbalance can topple the relationship fast.
  • Lesson 3 – Trust your instincts and raise issues early – Early on in the relationship, in a slightly tricky conversation, we saw one of the partners visibly loose control of his emotions momentarily and display a flash anger which was odd and unnerving and definitely not appropriate to the situation. We didn’t know him very well so didn’t say anything at the time but knew right away that it wasn’t a good sign. I wish now, that we had acknowledged it – not right away but perhaps within a day or two of it happening – as that would  have given us the chance to deal with it and possibly move on.
  • Lesson 4 – Build empathy not egos – In any collaboration you basically need to build empathy with each other and not let egos get in the way. I like to think this is what we are constantly trying to do however I don’t think we spend enough time connecting up front first and found sufficient similarities which then could become a platform upon which to build. The egos simply got in the way and missed the opportunity to understand each other’s point of view and ultimately to connect on our similarities and benefit from our differences, as Valdis Krebs says.
  • Lesson 5 – Debate in person and document later – Email is a pretty terrible communication mechanism at the best of times. Especially where there is different terminology being used or any ambiguity of meaning I think email should be avoided. In this collaboration, as we were geographically far apart and so resorted to using mostly email for conversations about the project. These became increasingly unhelpful and I was crying out for a phone or Skype call to discuss some of the points in person but it was very hard to get hold of them to discuss. Having said that, there were some fairly crucial things agreed early on that we didn’t put down in writing for which I was kicking myself later so it certainly helps to have a record of the conversation too.

Anyway, I’m sure there are other lessons there too but I share in the spirit of learning from what not to do. Needless to say we the relationship was tense and ultimately unsuccessful in winning the work. I must admit that it was also a huge relief not to have to unravel the increasingly dysfunctional collaboration had we actually been successful.

That said, they say hindsight is a wonderful thing, and there are a lot of things I probably would have done differently if we were to do it all again. We’ve certainly learned from the experience, and it’s been a wonderful case study in how not to collaborate. As ever, I’d be interested in your experiences and lessons learned about what makes collaboration work, or not, as the case may be.

by Roland


  1. Having been involved in this collaboration …there are a few other things I would add Roland…

    1) Do some research upfront about the people/organisation you are going in to collaboration with – although we had listened to advice from people we trusted, it’s surprising what more you can find out about an organisation and it’s reputation once you start asking more people. In hindsight of course I wish we’d done this at the start, rather than when it was too late.

    2) You’ve already mentioned it but I can’t emphasise it enough – document, document, document – when you all use different language it is really important to get continual agreement and consensus on decisions and record them.

    3) It links to point 2, but it’s also really important to be clear from the outset what the added value of collaborating is. I know 100% Open and the other (nice!) company mapped out in a room together what it was that each party was bringing to the table – the strengths and differences and how the collaboration was complimentary… it was very unfortunate that the third organisation in this didn’t see the value in attending that meeting as again, in hindsight, that conversation was pretty crucial.

    4) If you are a small team/organisation trying to collaborate with a much larger fish, then whilst it is important to focus on the detail of the bid and designing the content of what you’d want to deliver if successful, ensure that someone in the team is actively keeping abreast of the partnership relationships and where the whole bid is headed rather than just the individual parts. Though of course if you have a trusted relationship from the outset, this is less necessary.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with all the points both you and Cassie have highlighted. I find that the growing depth of information and detail necessary to remain competitive to win Tenders means that collaborators/consortiums could benefit greatly from treating this part of the process like a trial collaborative project: agree upon a Tender Prep Manager, set-up communication agreements (meetings/calls/Skype), sign off (in writing) on all the important stuff up front, support each other by defining the language you use or simply acknowledge that there may be differences and be sensitive to what they may be (a MASSIVE stumbling block in all business- different perceptions of the same language), and create a flexible process that outlines everyone’s responsibilities, important milestones and deliverables along the way. This in turn creates a trial run at collaboration and solidifies the consortium as a unified team which can only serve you well in an interview/presentation. Clarity leads to strong alliances and unified vision for a successful project that, most importantly, is a joy to work on with people who get and respect what you bring to the table and vice versa.

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