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Job #1 for Collaborative Leaders & Managers

In the first post of this series, I listed the top five reasons companies fail at collaboration. Number one on the list is that coworkers rarely develop and agree upon a sufficiently explicit definition of collaboration. For anyone interested in leading collaboratively, fixing that problem is job #1.

In this post, I offer a definition that can serve as an example. If you like it, you’re welcome to adopt it as your own.

For my highly caffeinated readers: If you're curious to understand the reasons why defining collaboration is so critical for organizations, read on. But if you feel as though you already understand those reasons well enough, you might want to skip to the next section.

What’s The Problem, Anyway?

Failing to agree upon what it means to collaborate leads to cripplingly low levels of trust among coworkers (especially up and down the chain of command) and, ultimately, to worker disengagement. How does that happen?

When we tout collaboration as a company value, the core of our meaning is left implicit. We're not simply encouraging people to work together, as the derivation suggests. We want them to work well together. That one word makes all the difference, and should signal for us a huge caution sign in flashing neon letters.

In practice, there's nothing obvious about what it takes to work well together. What it means to different people is largely subjective and highly contextual. Consider, for example, how you might work with a teenager vs. a colleague vs. a Nobel Prize winning expert. Chances are those scenarios would differ significantly.

By leaving things implicit, we almost guarantee that workers will fail to live up to each other's needs and expectations. And that's a really big deal. After all, the trust we feel toward coworkers is based in large part upon how well they live up to our expectations.

As we lose trust in peers or those “under us”, it’s not unusual to get frustrated and annoyed. But when we lose trust in our “superiors”, we disengage. Not surprisingly, the Gallup Organization continues to report alarmingly high levels of disengagement among American workers.

A Working Definition - The Secret Sauce

In our work with leaders and teams, my colleagues and I offer an explicit definition for almost every key term we use. We do this not because our definitions are absolutely “correct”, but because they enable us to communicate our meaning more effectively. As we often say at the start of any engagement, If we're not speaking a common language, we're not collaborating. In that spirit, here’s the definition you've been waiting for:

Collaboration works when all stakeholders have ownership of and alignment around what we're doing and how we're doing it

It is said that there’s a universe to be found in every grain of sand. For the Collaborative Operating System, this definition is that grain of sand, our unifying theory, our North Star.

In order to understand this definition fully, you’ll need a few more terms defined:

  • Ownership = the extent to which we feel or believe that something is ours

  • Alignment = the extent to which we see and understand things in the same way

  • Stakeholders = everyone who is affected by what we're doing or how we're doing it, and anyone else whose expertise we may need

Now you're nearly ready to put these definitions to the test. There's just one important caveat to keep in mind: Based upon these definitions, we can always strive to improve collaboration, but perfection is unattainable. Perhaps it's obvious, but here are the reasons and their implications:

  1. We cannot create perfect alignment between people. We can only seek to build sufficient levels of alignment. Similarly,

  2. We cannot own something exclusively and simultaneously share ownership with others. Thus, we can only seek to build sufficient levels of ownership. And finally,

  3. It's often not possible or practical to involve all the stakeholders directly, but we can remain mindful of the likely impacts of choosing to exclude certain stakeholders.

With that, you now have everything you need to “try on” this definition and to begin assessing collaboration in your own workplace.

Your Mission (should you decide to accept it...)

Here’s how to experiment with the definition. Think of any current situation where collaboration is not working as well as you'd like. It could be in the board room, among the executive leadership team, on a project team, or within any group of people who are collectively striving to produce a common outcome. Ask yourself, to what extent are we collaborating according to the definition above? More specifically, ask, to what extent are we:

  • Involving all the stakeholders?

  • Making the content of our work (the what) explicit?

  • Making the processes that we employ (the how) explicit?

  • Building alignment around what we're doing and how we're doing it?

  • Building and sharing ownership in what we're doing and how we're doing it?

By asking these questions, you are beginning to engage in the practice of collaborative leadership. And your answers will likely point you in the direction of where to focus your attention. Of course, what you do with your answers is just as important. But we'll leave that for another day.

Next time, we'll zero in on the fundamental principles of collaboration and collaborative leadership: Ownership & Alignment. Until then...


Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.

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