Monday, 4 July 2011

The 32 Dangers of Collaboration

In all walks of life collaboration is very fashionable: as a practice, a theory, or a goal. But do we ever really think through the dangers of collaboration? If it really works, why does it so often encounter cultures of resistance?

If we are to believe its main exponents and its evangelistic supporters collaboration unlocks creativity; improves inclusion; reduces costs; increases efficiency; delivers more effective and responsive services. It sounds like a win-win scenario.

Collaboration is a fashionable way of doing business and it is the rallying cry for governments and public service reformers. Being more networked, connected, co-operative, joined up… the collaboration industry is the dominant mode of discourse in the participatory world of Web 2.0. In a circular motion, new media and social media is built upon - and leads to - more collaboration.

But we might want to ask, is collaboration sometimes a downward spiral of depreciating values, or a virtuous cycle of inclusion and innovation ?

What does it mean to resist collaboration; to become a collaboration denier ?

(If you’re still reading, I should think that you’ll be able to find counter-arguments or solutions to each of the dangers and problems outlined below). 

Let’s enter the danger zones of collaboration.

  1. Collaboration is undermined when the participants are too busy with other work. Joint working may be stressful when it is supplementary to existing work rather replacing it. Making it work may involve a lot more effort than initially anticipated.

  1. Collaboration may be hindered if there is a lack of genuine incentives for being involved. Incentives may be individual gains; financial advantage; material resources; time in lieu; professional career development etc

  1. Collaboration is often accompanied by a lack of evidence for its effectiveness: benefits do not materialise. In the field of business ample evidence suggests that the main beneficiaries of acquisitions and mergers are the consultants rather than the monstrously conjoined enterprises.

  1. Collaboration may not achieve it desired goals if it is motivated by opportunism. Funding councils award generous grants for collaborative work; in a competitive environment the lure of money may exceed a genuine desire for partnership and co-operation.

  1. The vision may not be strong enough to sustain the collaboration, or may be damaged permanently by unsuccessful attempts at joint work.

  1. Collaboration may fall apart because too much information is shared between the parties. Participants are overloaded by the quantity of the data or paperwork, much of which may be foreign to their specialism or competence. On the other hand participants may withhold crucial information, sometimes unwittingly, or as a mode of resistance.

  1. Moreover, there may be unthought-of or irreconcilable conflicts and overlaps in the reporting styles and mechanisms, especially where these are prescribed by bodies with different kinds of accountabilities or competing professional status issues.

  1. If knowledge transfer between parties is obstructed by approaches which depend on models of intuition, or where systems and practices have not been explicitly articulated collaboration may fail or be damaging. Let’s remember that methodology and systematic clarity is a social science aspiration rather than a human reality; especially in situations which are fluid, transitional, or embryonic.

  1. Collaboration may be imposed or dominate in such a way that it becomes a threat to self-reliance, and the option for individuals to be confident to make decisions without constant permission and consultation. Relatedly, there may be an impact on an individual’s capacity to respond spontaneously

  1. The excessive use of team work and joint decision-making can be slow and time-consuming; burning resources in interminable committees; delaying business and postponing actions. The outcomes are frustration and disenchantment

  1. Collaboration may lead to a fear that weaknesses will be revealed. Sometimes it is more effective and efficient for weaknesses to be addressed internally. At stake here is also the issue of vulnerability. Collaboration will fail where the notion of insecurity and trust has not been addressed. Again it is worth noting that building trust takes time, as well as preparedness for temporary or lasting setbacks.

  1. In unequal collaboration resentment occurs because there are more takers than givers.

  1. In certain collaborative scenarios there is an impact on perceived status for some parties. Linked to the vulnerability issue is the idea of being the weaker or junior partner; especially where joint working ends up in being told how we do things.

  1. Remember that collaboration is not necessarily equal and democratic. The collaborative burden of work may fall on some partners, more than others, and in unanticipated ways

  1. Collaboration is weak where there are few common frames of reference, or little motivation to establish shared vision and mutuality of interests.

  1. In unbalanced collaboration there is the risk that cliques form, or that sections of the community start to talk shop rather than addressing issues of mutual concern in a common language.

  1. For some collaborators there is a fear that sharing may mean a loss of power or resources; that a cherished or minority function will be lost to the large partner after the collaborative work has been concluded.

  1. For other collaborative projects there may be anxieties about the ownership of outcomes, attributions of authorship, or wider ethical concerns.

  1. Where there is anxiety in collaboration a situation may occur where there are few contributors, minimal contributions, or statements that are too cautious and tentative to form a ground for future work.

  1. Collaboration may fail where the initial contacts and networking have been weak. Key partners have not been adequately engaged or identified, leading to resentment and a sense of injustice, or unfair representation.

  1. Collaboration may be taken for granted, a routine rather than a special opportunity for creative work. The 9 AM team meeting is a typical example of the institutionalisation of team work rather than goal-oriented, problem- or project-based actions. Keeping to routine agenda items stifles creativity and innovation.

  1. Collaboration may fall apart when there are weak ties between the participants. Conversely, strong ties may mean that there are insufficient tensions and challenges, with groupthink replacing the strenuous effort to forge new lines of thought or action.

  1. There are dangers in short term collaboration under special circumstances – such as response to emergency or crisis – where the work may turn out to be time-specific, ephemeral, or unsustainable when the temporary pulling together becomes less pressured or urgent.

  1. In online collaboration there is a risk of individuals not showing their true feelings or personality; identity concealed behind an avatar or persona. While anonymity may facilitate people being more honest and outspoken the side-effect may be a decrease in trust and mutuality.

  1. Collaboration is much more than simply having lots of teams, or indeed a dominant culture of team-working. Although team approaches may be relevant to collaboration they are only part of the story. And group work has its own practices, starting points, and outcomes. Collaboration may helpfully involve the risk of moving beyond the familiar group or team, with the all risks and uncertainties that that runs.

  1. Collaboration may inhibit or alienate the role of maverick individuals, lone workers, and the solitary genius.

  1. Collaboration may create an opportunity to hide behind the collaborative wall; with no one individual or cluster taking adequate responsibility for actions.

  1. Institutional or competitive pressures may also threaten options for collaboration. Increasingly, Universities are in competition for scarce resources, leading to a fear that one’s inputs or outputs may be diluted by joint work.

  1. Relatedly, external partners such as businesses may exercise an unfair leverage on their public sector partner (or vice versa)

  1. Collaboration may alienate others if it is perceived to be hierarchical or exclusive – the senior ‘round table’; the world ‘experts’ enforcing their collective ‘wisdom’.

  1. Alternatively it is easy for individuals or splinter groups to write off the failed collaboration as not their work, not my doing. The collaboration again serves as a defensive wall to mask poor engagement or weak participation; intractable disagreements, and/ or failed outcomes.

  1. Collaboration fails if it is just working with the enemy. If our actions are undertaken in bad faith, the best outcome is an existential crisis, if not a loss of identity. And we all know what happens to collaborators when the invading army is at last repulsed. We fall victim to the sabotage or the revenge of the stout-hearted resistance. The war metaphor may appear on first analysis exaggerated, but we should not underestimate how often forced collaboration fails because of internal resistance to an outside force.

But don’t let any of that stop you. 

And if you have time, I'd like to hear about your experience of the resistance to collaboration

That is, if you want to work with me.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) ... also available on Kindle, or to download. A bargain!


  1. Always refreshing to encounter someone challenging current trends - the changes now taking place in many aspects of social, educational and community services will have very long-term effects, and it's entirely appropriate that we take proper time to pause and reflect.
    As both a performer (storyteller) and visual artist I've long been aware of both sides of the collaboration coin, and the tensions that inevitably ensue. To pretend that the whole is necessarily always greater than the sum of the parts, or that even the voluntary mixing together of different parts will be positive and painless is both naieve and dangerous...but also, currently, politically expedient.
    As I think is often the case, it comes down to motivations. If you have a compelling enough reason (for you) to collaborate, then you should also be able to find the impetus to work through the sticky patches. If the reason is not compelling for you personally, you're going to have a very hard time indeed.
    My own response to such situations has often been to acknowledge the differences, and find ways to work alongside, rather than with. Subtle but very important difference.

  2. Thanks for those comments, Allan. as you suggest there are positives as well. I think that you are right to spot that (personal) motivation is a key factor - especially in having the will to get through difficulties

    I'm wondering if we should think in terms of stages of collaboration, with different dangers and rewards at each level. Often we begin with an excess of enthusiasm, or we may be quite tentative or sceptical.


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