Think Fast Service and Operations Leadership

How Do You Collaborate?

I thought this sounded like an interview question, and I don’t usually care for interview questions.  I was in the middle of being interviewed for a position after all, and this was a question my interviewer had on a printed page in front of him with intentionally open spaces for his note-taking.

With a poor attitude like this I did not fare well on this portion of the discussion, stammered a bit, and blurted out something about superior inter-personal skills and team blah blah blah.  My interviewer politely smiled and moved to the next question, but I tried to re-engage, knowing that I had been very clumsy with this non-answer.  We both basically laughed it off and I assumed it was one of those unanswerable points that can be used in an interview to discern thought processes and verbal skills as opposed to a right or wrong answer.

On the plane home it was still bothering me and with some time to relax and put some thought into it I realized that it is not an inane interview “gotcha,” it is an excellent question to determine thought process or, more importantly, to gain insight into a person’s ability to take an abstract concept like “collaboration” and move it into tangible business actions.

It seems to me there is one overriding requirement for successful collaboration, and everything else falls into place from there in successively more detailed and tactical steps.  The requirement is that all parties involved in the collaboration understand and share the common objective and business purpose that has brought them together.  I would think the progressive tactical steps would be something like:

  • Agree on common objective for collaboration
  • Method(s) of communication, frequency
  • Method(s) for achieving end result
  • Measurements, milestones, timeframes

What am I missing here?  This was the start of a brainstorm, there must be many more issues to consider…



May 11, 2009 - Posted by | Service and Operations


  1. Interesting question. I like the start of your response. I would add…

    1) Define roles for those involved in the collaboration; ensure all are clear and in agreement.
    2) Work to ensure all interested parties have an opportunity to share perspectives and insights throughout the collaboration (to avoid a wrench tossed in at the end).
    3) Develop an agreed upon process for conflict resolution, before conflict arises. What’s the chain? Who has the last word?
    4) Review agreed upon objective throughout process to ensure you’re still aligned with it and/or that it’s still the right objective.
    5) TBD….

    Comment by Anne Sutton | May 12, 2009 | Reply

  2. Thanks for the additional insight Anne, you are obviously a communications professional.

    I wonder if we could come up with an shortcut to help simplify remembering these best practices, like “goals, roles, methods, metrics.” I like to keep it simple.

    Comment by ThinkWiki | May 12, 2009 | Reply

  3. Bryan – an additional thought … discuss the reasons to collaborate. There are some things that are best handled by one person … for the other times, are you collaborating to:
    – Get done quicker
    – Use “less expensive” resources for more of the project
    – Offer a development opportunity for one or more people
    – etc.

    I agree with Anne, too, on roles and chain. The “role” discussion is a great time to address why you’re collaborating. “Bob, would you be willing to do xx? I think you would be great because you’ve done this several times and can help us get it done quickly.” OR “…because I would really like to see how you might approach this differently, not having done xx a number of times before.”

    Just thoughts….


    Comment by Tony J. Morse | May 12, 2009 | Reply

    • I couldn’t agree more Tony. I think you make great points with both the timing and the purpose of the “role” discussion.

      Do you have ideas on simplifying this thought process too? I’ve found that people will balk at processes that appear to be overdone.

      Comment by ThinkWiki | May 12, 2009 | Reply

  4. Hmmm…

    Is “who, what, where, when & why” too simple?


    Comment by Tony J. Morse | May 12, 2009 | Reply

    • No, not at all. Funny how everything comes back to Jr. High English class!

      Comment by ThinkWiki | May 12, 2009 | Reply

  5. One of the key definitions lacking in your wordpress is the most crucial aspect of ANY collaborative effort:


    Without ownership definition, you have various entities discussing ephemeral aspects of of a given project, and with no clear definition of who owns each piece, it becomes an exercise in futility. For examples, look at ANY IBM engagement. For a real treat, fold in Six Sigma, and you have a massive management entity “collaborating”… and its full of sound and fury. Without defining ownership it signifies nothing…. Read More

    Ask any general – the genius in in the details, an army marches on its stomach, and hand it off to your direct reports – and there must be repercussions for failing to deliver.

    Comment by Pat Duggan | May 12, 2009 | Reply

    • Certainly ownership is critical and I think an important point of emphasis clarifying roles.

      Comment by ThinkWiki | May 12, 2009 | Reply

  6. Ok, so maybe this is a bit blunt, but the only reason to collaborate is that you need another person’s effort (specific skill set, just another set of hands, whatever) in order to accomplish an objective to a specific level of quality or within a given time window.

    It’s why some folks hire a tax attorney instead of doing their own, it’s why you see a surgeon instead of taking out your own appendix, and it’s why you ask your brother-in-law to help you move. An alternative is simply that you don’t want to do it yourself, but let’s presume laziness or “delegation” is out of scope for the moment.

    Your proposed framework is solid. Anne’s suggestions of roles (including the ownership angle) and conflict resolution are also critical. I like Pat’s army analogy, but that’s much less about collaboration than it is about following orders and the chain of command.

    And if you’re simplifying to the journalistic questions, you also have to add the “how”…though I’m leaning more toward Tony’s question if it might be too simplistic an approach. Will noodle on it a bit more.

    Comment by Ed Lucas | May 20, 2009 | Reply

    • Do you collaborate with a tax attorney or a surgeon, or do you delegate to them?

      I agree with your first point, but I also think you collaborate in larger organizations with individuals on disparate teams who have a stake in the outcome. The desired result has to include the commitment to success from all involved. This can’t be taken to an absurd degree, of course, but I think it is a consideration.

      Maybe we should jointly create a 20-page ebook entitled “Collaboration.”

      Comment by ThinkWiki | May 20, 2009 | Reply

      • With regulatory compliance and medical issues, for me it’s almost always collaboration and not delegation. For others, that may not be the case.

        My argument was definitely from the one-sided perspective of the majority stakeholder. In the cases where there are multiple equal-and-high stakeholders, then each entity’s motivation for success has to be generally aligned with the others’ (in terms of amplitude and direction), otherwise the results of the collaboration will be sub-optimal.

        This is quickly becoming the purview of the game theorists. Still haven’t gotten through the first chapter of Choice and Consequence.

        Comment by Ed Lucas | May 20, 2009

      • And I’m certainly up for collaborating on a book about collaborating. Bonus points for its being self-referential.

        Comment by Ed Lucas | May 20, 2009

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