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Collaboration by Any Other Name: When Trends Trump Meaning

A lot of different terms get thrown around in business. The tech world loves acronyms and lingo, and as a group we tend to use them to gauge the validity of messages in the marketplace. If the big guys are talking about project management, The Cloud, collaboration, or S-curves, you can bet that the rest of the industry will be right behind them, ready with a unique perspective, some sound advice, and maybe a snazzy infographic or two.

But what happens when all that jargon goes from catchy and catching to overdone and meaningless?

Actions Speak Louder than Buzzwords

Inundated as the internet may be with terminology, it does serve a purpose. There’s a reason SEO experts exist, and as with anything, why certain words gain popularity as they become increasingly associated with business practices, work styles, or successful organizations. It’s when companies latch on to these terms in theory — and not practice — that problems surface.

Collaboration is one of those terms that’s getting a ton of play right now, primarily because it’s rapidly becoming the model for how successful teams work. The disruptive nature of collaborating drives out-of-the-box thinking, provides a network of peer-accountability, and a framework in which testing is encouraged and failure isn’t something to be afraid of. But collaboration doesn’t work when it’s just a theory, and implementing a fully-collaborative system takes more than just throwing people together in a room with some software and a whiteboard. That’s where companies tend to falter.

“Real, genuine, messy collaboration involves reaching out to unconventional organizations that your company may never have worked with before,” say HBR bloggers Paul Ellingstad and Charmian Love. “If it feels uncomfortable, overwhelming and challenging, you’re probably on the right track.”

If your company’s idea of collaboration is simply a nebulous, undefined notion of glorified teamwork, chances are you’re doing it wrong.

Mapping the Scope: Challenges and Stakeholders

As more and more organizations turn to flattened-out team structures, collaboration becomes a more natural solution to things like assembly-line approaches to project management, or developing deliverables that involve multiple departments. Beyond assembling a team or, on a larger scale, a network of organizations, mapping the scope of your collaborative efforts can help you identify issues before they arise, gaps in the feedback loop, potential schedule obstructions, and stakeholder priority.

Consider beginning the collaboration process by mapping out the team itself. This transparent team blueprint will show how each person and their expertise contributes to the entire project, as well as how they do or don’t fit into the group’s architecture. You can then build out individual node paths for each team member to visually showcase how their work will connect with and affect the other aspects of the project. Additionally, using the same map to address and prioritize the weight of stakeholder agendas will allow you to quickly assess where action items should fall in terms of importance and responsibility.

The team at HBR makes an important observation: “Complex partnerships also require the understanding that when working at a system level, there is often no defined end point for your activities. The further you go, the more opportunities you identify. Therefore, it’s helpful to frame the scope broadly and allow for unforeseen change and modification rather than establishing a set timeline with a strict exit [or] sunset clause.”

Companies that use buzzwords without backup risk a lot more than disorganized teams and internal struggles — they risk getting caught being insincere and hypocritical. Introducing modern collaboration to your team might be more easily said than done, but you don’t want to make the costly mistake of promising results from techniques that you don’t practice.