“Collaboration” is a Dirty Word

Individuals coming together to contribute towards a common purpose – “Collaboration”. What a beautiful concept! How can anyone be against that? How dare I call “collaboration” a dirty word! Why am I not simply applauding the term?

As an employee in a relatively large company I have to work frequently in collaboration with people inside and outside of my department.  I don’t mind the concept; in fact, I would embrace it, if we agreed upon what we mean by “collaboration”. What I have issue with is its common application and usage. What tends to actually occur in practice is that only one individual or a minority of the group performs the work of the entire group.

People within a team environment will probably contribute at different levels. This is fine if it is understood that this will be the case. One person who has so much limited resources will contribute X% of their effort to the group, but this achieves something that the others want contributed. This type of agreement is fine with me. What actually happens is that people abuse the fact that as long as the group gets it done they are “contributors” to the “collaboration”. Another common occurrence is that people are unaware of what it is they need to contribute to the collaboration, and end up contributing nothing without realizing it.

If one individual could have performed the work of the collaboration, there should be stated deliberate reasons why the collaboration is occurring. There are other benefits from a group activity such as peer review, implementation, and general buy-in. But those should be the primary reasons. It should not be a collaboration so that certain individuals do not have to contribute as much as other individuals.

I think we should Taboo the word “collaboration”. What do you actually mean when you use that word? Are we separate individuals coming together to contribute towards a common purpose because of a set of agreed upon reasons? Could we not complete the work on our own, or desire a group benefit, such that the collaboration is mutually beneficial?

I think that before individuals can actually consider collaboration, they need to be aware of what they can contribute on their own. As a single player, what am I good at and what do I need improvement in? What can I bring to a group setting? What do I lack, and who will be best to team up with to cover for each of our gaps?

As an individual, I can only win so much. But I must first have an idea of what I can win on my own, before considering what we can win together if we team up. If I have no idea, or if I have no intent of actually contributing, then we are a “collaboration” in name only. We may achieve a certain group output, but what exactly did I contribute? What did I learn? Where did I challenge myself? What skills of mine did I practice and test to see if they need honing?

“Collaboration” is a dirty word. But sometimes, collaboration is necessary. Be careful with how it’s used. Abuse it too much, and you may become over-reliant on it to do things which you could learn to do on your own. Accept it too much, and you may be doing a disservice to others by reducing their opportunities to learn on their own.

There is no team without me, or you, or the others. That’s how it should be for all of us collaborating. If the team could have performed just as well without me, and I am collaborating for the purpose of contributing (not just for a learning experience), then I am doing myself a disservice. I am lying to myself, convincing myself under false pretense of my ability. It is myself who will be lacking in the long run. In the process, I am also inconveniencing others, having them carry my weight.

Is this mindset that unreasonable for me to have? It it too much to expect that others have a similar mindset?

Up until now I have tried giving my collaborators the benefit of the doubt, but I can only allow so much benefit after experiencing first-hand so much doubt. So the next time I hear someone mention “collaboration”, please excuse me when I do not instantly start clapping.

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