The World Cities Summit in Singapore this week has highlighted the need for more collaboration in cities. In fact, everywhere you look there are calls for greater collaboration. Especially in relation to the challenges of cities and government.
Yet we rarely talk about why collaboration is so hard to do. Good collaboration takes time and investment. More than that, it takes a certain humility and emotional intelligence.
Now most of us who have worked in organisations can attest to the challenges of working with people who are, ostensibly, already on our team. Just try suggesting to a senior manager that it might be a good idea to (1) do something different with her budget (2) change his team size (3) adjust their priorities in any way. Well, you can imagine how that goes down.
Then within every organisation I’ve ever worked there is inevitably a simmering tension between two or more people who may sit around an executive leadership table together but hate each other beyond all rationality. Try and get them to share a project, even share a floor and you’ll have to deal with the fall out. A sort of guerilla war usually ensues – overly polite in front of a CEO, chilly with each other and full on war usually through their ‘troops’.
So, if we find it to hard to manage priorities and relationships within an organisation why do we think we’ll find it easy to collaborate across organisational boundaries? Sometimes even across more than two organisations?
It’s one thing to convene a group of people around a table and have a discussion. But that’s hardly collaboration, is it? Collaboration is when people agree to do something together, in the pursuit of a greater good, where success may not even be able to be attributed. It takes a capacity to listen, to subdue egos and be open to new ways of thinking. Then they need to follow through – commit resources, bend organisational priorities and take the time it needs to make it work.
No-one talks that much about the time it takes, but many important things take much longer than anyone expects. Why? Well most projects that benefit from collaboration are either complicated (just plain hard) or complex (there is no real solution). People will need to be convinced. There will be ambiguity. The best dinner parties, even with good friends, involve fierce disagreements about something. So why should it be possible to convene a group and not have to work through all the possible different ways of seeing and understanding a problem, patiently consider different options and navigate strongly held views.
To make things even more complicated, those people have to go back to their organisations and convince others. And we know what goes on in organisations (see above).
In fact many organisations pay lip service to working across boundaries while instructing their staff not to co-operate or to make the whole project a low priority.
And then there are the ‘ins and outs’ of working with political leaders and their staff.
Collaboration across organisations is a heroic endeavour and anyone who undertakes it and comes through with real joint projects, real joint investment and organisations prepared to share the credit deserves an award.
Only, the people who are really good at collaboration tend to be those who are rarely noticed. As a result they work hard, they encourage and energise teams, they help solve problems, they put in the time needed and they successfully navigate the many egos involved. Yet the very skills they need to succeed means they don’t hog the limelight.
Collaboration is one of the hardest things you can do. Maybe we should suggest that cities try to do something simpler. Like improving public transport or something. (Uh oh, maybe that will need collaboration?)