A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be on a panel discussion at the Engineers Australia (WA) Leadership conference with some other wonderful presenters. The conference was very interesting and I think the format worked really well, well done Engineers Australia for doing something a little different…..

The topic I was asked to speak to, with Richard Elving from Autodesk and Mark Stickells from University of WA, was “collaboration”. As was my want, I decided that I’d take a slightly different view of the definition of collaboration and see what happened.

We all recognise that one definition of collaboration according to our friends at Google is “the action of working with someone to produce something”, and I think we all get that. So what did I do? You guessed it – I used another interpretation which was “traitorous cooperation with an enemy”.  I’m sure you are wondering what on earth I could mean by that definition, well apart from getting a few laughs, let me explain.

If we think of our current operating environments, our systems and processes are imposed on us by someone, generally the use of our time is determined by someone else (who has heard or used the phrase, my time is not my own?), and how we do our work is dictated by someone (if not formally certainly informally) which funnily enough in some instances mandates or at least recommends the use of collaboration. What we are actually able to achieve in these organisations is at its worst coercion and at its best consultation. Coercion and consultation are designed to reach the same end state – “I want you to agree with me and whatever it is that I want from our engagement”. We can do that either with positive (consultation) or negative (coercion) repercussions. This is where the use of the alternate definition for Collaboration comes in.

In project environments relationships seem to be subservient to the terms, conditions and nuances of the contracts that govern them, some will argue that with their words, however behaviours invariably betray them. Contracts are by design set up to deal with an environment of predictable and inevitable failure, distrust and disappointment, sad but true. The conditions that are normally set from the get go are adversarial, risk averse and drive a lack of trust. It is in this environment that we are expected to collaborate, and for the lucky ones this same environment can be further affected by complexity in that we know we must collaborate to be successful.

Given all of that, as a project owner one must seek to cooperate with our contractual enemies, our suppliers, you know the ones that are inevitably going to cause our failure, let us down and ultimately affect our performance. So how do we truly collaborate in this environment? This is the struggle that many good people in organisations have to face right now. We must get past the lose/lose outcomes that we are currently achieving and move toward something different.

The real reason to collaborate should be to generate new knowledge that did not exist before.  If that is not the outcome it isn’t collaboration it is just consultation. We must enter into collaborative interactions willing to share our knowledge, experiences, opinions and ourselves with others that they may grow and we must be willing and open to learn from others so we may grow.

What about ‘probity’, ‘competitive advantage’, ‘IP’, ‘Trade Secrets’, ‘how we do things around here’ and all the other legal, regulatory and legislative stuff that we can use to hide behind to avoid doing what is necessary to achieve better results. Well they can all exist in harmony with collaboration if you take the view that collaboration generates new knowledge which requires a different mindset.

If you are engaging in collaboration that is not for the specific purpose of generating new insight and knowledge then it is a waste of your very precious time and it should be called something else!

By Deborah Hein (former ICCPM CEO), Published on LinkedIn on September 20, 2017