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

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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  1. Richard Preston
    Richard Preston 12 June 2015, 12:19 PM

    I promised myself never to become an old f**t.  But I have a son who has just completed a degree in Economic History (and APM Risk Level 2)  He regularly asks why people don’t learn from the past. Collaboration needs trust; trust takes a long time to build and can be destroyed in an instant.  In the 90's we called it 'partnering' and the theory was just as good then but seemed to be difficult to put into practice.  Changing its name wont make much difference. I cant see how this can be 'the age of alliancing'  haven’t we had one of those before?  Perhaps we are in the 'new age of alliancing'.  Oh, the Labour Party tried that and look what happened. Partnering. collaborating, alliancing (and whatever new name someone dreams up to describe the same thing) need trust.    Is that on the new competence framework?

  2. Ian Heptinstall
    Ian Heptinstall 06 August 2017, 10:35 AM

    Within the content of a project (as opposed to other forms of collaboration), I think a significant proportion of the widely-reported failure of projects to deliver to promise, is linked to the lack of collaboration across project teams. Yes trust is necessary, but it isn't sufficient, and actually I don't think it has to take a long-time to build either. Take top sports teams for example - new players can be integrated fairly quickly. And I've not seen any research that shows you get better results from a team by deliberately choosing not to collaboration. Of course it is not a panacea, and it needs much more than a signed poster in reception, but that doesn't mean it is not crucial for success along with leadership. And what do we do on projects which involve a network of suppliers/contractors - link construction & capex? Well we deliberately use non-collaborative methods for selection and contract management, and employ far too many people simply to police the adversarial contracts we put in place! I'm not surprised so many projects don't meet targets, and I'm also one of those who believes approaches like project alliancing have a core role to play in improving project value and performance.