Don't be seduced by the drive to collaborate in the 'age of alliances'

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Who could possibly take issue with a word such as ‘collaborate’, which according to my on-line dictionary, denotes ‘the action of working with someone to produce something’? There now appears to be an inextricable drive to collaborate across all organisational sectors, in what has been coined ‘the age of alliances’. In austerity Britain collaboration is often promoted as a panacea, an ingenious way of delivering more for less. Yet reality often paints a very different picture.

Organisational collaboration takes many forms and can include joint ventures, outsourcing, sharing services, PFI and a multitude of other initiatives.  The relevance to us in the project management community is, that most, if not all, of the responsibility for delivering the desired product of these ‘collaborations’ rests upon our shoulders. We are, after all, the ‘experts’ in delivering projects.

Now lets look at the harsh reality. We know some seventy percent of normal projects end up delivering a sub optimal outcome. When we look at the track record for inter organisational initiatives, the ‘failure’ rate is truly alarming. The Institute of Collaborative Working indicates a figure of eighty percent, while research undertaken by respected academics Sagawa and Segal suggest an even higher failure rate of ninety percent.

Russ Linden, a management guru specialising in strategic alliances, makes the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ collaboration and this links to the important concept of ‘collaborative synergy’. Embarking upon a collaborative venture in the vain hope that something good might happen is a sure recipe for disaster. Unfortunately it does not end there, as evidence suggests many joint ventures are particularly susceptible to the project manager’s curse of ‘optimism bias’, where the benefits are inflated and risks minimised.

A major problem with collaboration is that organisations are unwilling to admit and learn from their mistakes. This afflicts all sectors and was summarised aptly in a 2013 ‘Guide on Partnering in the NHS’ which stated:

“It is still difficult to uncover real examples of savings made and outcomes achieved from partnerships. This is in part because results take time to materialise. However, there also seems to be a reluctance to reveal results, perhaps through fear of how they may be perceived. Our panel hopes that NHS trusts and their partners will start to be more open about both achievements and challenges.”

During my own research into the pitfalls of delivering inter-organisational collaboration, leadership arose as a reoccurring theme. While I am sure we all appreciate that collaborative leadership skills are very different from those demanded in a traditional organisational hierarchy, the day to day pressures of delivery mean, that despite best intentions, many of our community default to a command and control leadership style, with all the associated adverse consequences this may bring. A senior manager referred to the disproportionate levels of ‘intellectual horsepower’ (her words) that trying to patch together a collaborative venture necessitated. Her conclusion was that the organisation would have been better acting independently and retaining control. 

So you have now all been warned. Collaboration maybe a ‘nice’ word and it may just provide a solution that is right for your organisation. But before embarking upon your next collaborative project, please take time out to make sure it constitutes a ‘good’ collaboration and that you can demonstrate sackfuls of ‘synergy’. Do this by ruthlessly focusing on and nailing those benefits. Available evidence suggests that that the highest levels of project management competence are demanded to minimise the risk of joining the ever increasing number of failed collaborative ventures.

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Posted by Jim Dale on 6th Jun 2015

About the Author

Jim is an independent project management consultant, mentor and advisor. He is an APM accreditation assessor, an RPP assessor and a PQ facilitator and assessor. Jim has an MBA (pass with distinction) from CASS Business School and has achieved practitioner status in a suite of APMG methods. Jim’s early project background is in policing where he has managed several multi million pound transformational change initiatives, including setting up and delivering tranche 1 of Forensics21, leading a major root and branch review of Sussex Police and managing the introduction of a new call centre, digital telephony, a single non emergency number and ‘e’ contact for that force. Jim is a long standing committee member of ProgM and was the secretary for many years. He is currently studying for a professional doctorate focussing on developing best practice for collaboration programmes of transformational change. Several feature articles written by Jim has been published in academic and professional journals, including Project magazine.

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