Why Collaboration is Not Always the Answer

January 25, 2019 • 4 minute read • by Saeed

You’ve watched ants at work. You’ve seen them collaborating around a shared goal. Ants are social insects and outnumber humans a million to one. They would rule the world if they could strategically switch mindsets between teamwork and collaboration.

We all think we understand what collaboration is, we all think we understand what it means, if this is true then how come we constantly read accounts of it failing? Well this is not the case. Collaboration is misunderstood and overused.

As a matter of fact, it’s common for people to use the terms collaboration and teamwork interchangeably. It’s common, but it’s wrong.

Teamwork – Collaboration, What’s the Difference?


Teams are created usually by a manager who is looking for a specific single result. A group of people with the required skills are assembled. Tasks, timelines, goals, and success measures are created and the team is off and running. Their actions are interdependent, but are fully committed to the result articulated by the manager.

For the most part, as long as the team is provided with good leadership and has the project management skills to and coordinate the action, teams work well. That’s teamwork. But that’s not collaboration. The key for a successful team lies in its leader. You can have an ineffective, argumentative team but as long as strong leadership is provided to resolve disputes and help the team communicate and coordinate their activities, odds are the team will be successful. We have all been in these situations before where engaging in effective teamwork really hinges on the effectiveness of the leader. There is a certain framework backed by standards and expectations that we engage in, when we work on teams. Accountability on a team is usually, in theory at least, clear. So are the lines of communication and how delegated tasks are advanced. Control is key with teamwork.


Collaboration on the other hand is completely different. Collaborators usually have some shared goals that are only a smaller part of their overall responsibilities. Unlike teams, collaborators cannot rely on a leader to resolve differences, and cannot walk away from each other when they do disagree. In collaboration, the hierarchy experienced on teams is muted so accountability, communication, and how tasks are advanced all look different. Successful collaboration is reliant on the relationships of give and take between its participants. The end product comes from the effort of the group thinking and working together as equal partners; without a leader. Where collaboration breaks down is when there is a lack of trust, an inability to have healthy conflict and no framework established for accountability (mutual trust and agreement).

 So Teamwork or Collaboration? Which Should I use?

Both models are important and useful. It’s important to know how to be a team player but also to know how to be an effective collaborator. Knowing when to push and pull in each scenario is often a matter of emotional intelligence. With collaboration, you have to learn to share power and expect that your idea is not always the best idea.

Ask yourself these questions: Do I want participants to work as a team or as collaborators? Do I run this project as a collaboration or as a team? Which model will work best for this specific project? How do I prepare my personnel to excel as collaborators? How do I encourage team leaders?

Establishing teams uses up lots of internal resources. Collaboration is best when a project is greater than any one individual’s expertise and you don’t want to pull dedicated resources to ensure completion. Collaboration expands the team’s expertise.

Collaboration should not be thought of as a permanent solution. Collaborative groups should form, complete a project and disband. While collaborative engagements usually take longer, they should not be allowed to go ad infinitum. A team often stays together. When deciding whether a collaborative relationship is really necessary, assess if the conditions for success exist. Do people know how to work in a leader-less environment? Are they equipped to handle conflict? How will they communicate? How will they keep each other accountable?

A Final Word

So, collaboration and teamwork, no matter how similar they may seem are actually different. Both enable employees to work together efficiently to complete tasks and reach targets quicker. Both play an important role in the world of business. Choosing which to use, is an important decision with regards to resources as well as the capacity of personnel involved.

Creating an environment that encourages everyone to work together can have a big impact on your team’s performance.  Finding the correct balance between autonomous working, teamwork and collaboration will help to play to each person’s individual strengths to keep the workforce engaged and efficient.

Good luck.

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©2019 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

3 Practical Ways to Unleash the Power of Collaboration

November 17, 2017 • 5 minute read • by Saeed

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” ~ African Proverb

There is no way around it. The future of work is collaborative. And, yes, there is a way to work collaboratively, co-creatively and constructively with others. Even with people who have vastly different approaches and preferences than you. But first we must recognize that true collaboration is more than team members working on a project together. Much more. Collaboration is not just a matter of getting rid of cubicles and doors. The social, informational and spatial trends that are converging in the new age of technological innovation are demanding higher levels of sophistication and new patterns of collaboration that go beyond these simplistic fixes. They are demanding change at our roots. Let me explain.

Stuck in the old…

At the corporate level, our traditional systems still lack the nimbleness, structures, and culture needed for people to collaborate effectively.

To unleash innovation, companies must change the corporate culture to one of collaboration and trust; and implement tools to harness collective knowledge, experience and communities.

At a minimum, they must share knowledge across the organization by making data and information available to more people in the organization and empower them to act on that data. The current corporate culture in which we operate, still lacks the needed transparency to really foster true collaboration.

At the team level, collaboration is often confused with teamwork. In teams, employees with different knowledge, skills, and abilities may work side by side on common goals at the direction of a team leader and be individually accountable to that leader. Collaboration, however, involves interaction, debate, and working together towards a common goal. Collaboration demands mutual accountability.

At the individual level, it must be acknowledged that collaboration does not come naturally to most employees. For those born before the Millennials, competition was the expected mode of operation. The mindset shift needed for these workers, who have been conditioned into the thinking that individual effort will be rewarded with steady career progression, may be significant.

Embracing the new…

To maximize potential, companies must capitalize on the way many workers, in particular Millennials, already connect. Consider, for example, the widespread use and global connectivity made possible by social media. Such widespread use has bred familiarity and comfort with the now all too familiar platforms that we all use for both personal and professional gain.

Social networking has expanded rapidly worldwide. Its growth alongside the evolution of other Web 2.0 conferencing and collaboration technologies are clear indicators not only of the need but also of the changing nature of people’s willingness and desire to collaborate.

To be sure, there are disadvantages to the explosion of content that Internet communications brings. The recent epidemic of fake news and manipulation of U.S. democratic systems being the best example that comes to mind. But my thesis is that in the long run, the advantages will far outweigh the downsides of the virtual inevitability of these new ways of sharing.

What many of us fail to grasp is that the Internet is evolving – from publishing to commerce to user engagement – and we must evolve with it.

The Call to Action…

Let’s not mince words. Collaboration is hard work. It takes effective communication and coordination. It takes social and emotional intelligence. It takes teams that have been nurtured and taught to collaborate. Collaboration often fails because it is often just a simple mandate. Leaders who believe it’s a good thing simply lay it out as an expectation to follow without providing the requisite mechanisms or fostering the needed mindset shift to collaborate effectively.

When viewed as an activity and unsupported, the behaviors necessary for organization-wide collaboration fail to occur. Moreover, the current “do not criticize” climate of work may stymie healthy debate that actually stimulates creativity and innovation. Employees must learn together, be comfortable with each other, understand peer motivations and intentions and be able to speak the same collaborative language. That takes way more work on the part of leaders than just saying to employees that we expect collaboration. The same principles, by the way, apply to partnerships and coalitions. It is quite amazing how many times we convene people in a room with the expectation that by the sheer virtue of the convening, they will be able to collaborate. This forms the basis for the Collective Impact framework.

Collaboration takes time, effort, energy, resources and commitment. In the meantime, here are three practical things you can do right now to unleash the true power of collaboration:

1.      Leaders First: This means lead by example. Leaders should themselves role model effective collaboration and have the requisite communication and collaboration skills to do so. They should also understand their role in facilitating collaboration and maintaining a collaborative environment. Most importantly, leaders should not micromanage and should give employees the autonomy they need to perform the jobs they were hired to do. The future of work, is after all, autonomous.

2.      Use Collaboration Tools and Software: Web 2.0 technologies are exploding with opportunities and the reality of virtual teams and the global workforce necessitates a migration to these tools. Consider a serious investment that will allow you to harness the power of project management and communication tools that the new technology offers.

3.      Train your Teams: Studies and experience show that teams need to continue to improve communication, leadership, and critical thinking skills. Collaboration is greatly facilitated by training employees to know how to tap into individual and collective talent effectively, to have clarity about roles and responsibilities, and to know how to hold productive meetings.

Beyond these three, it should be noted that trust, open communication, as well as, shared vision and purpose are the foundations of effective collaboration. Indeed, many of the tenets of creating a positive work culture are necessary prerequisites for collaboration to take hold. Remember, that a truly collaborative workplace involves every employee at every level. For collaboration to truly be woven into the fabric of daily operations, the collaborative mindset must be infused in an organization’s culture first.

Good luck.

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©2017 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.