How intent affects collaboration

Collaboration is becoming ever more important in business especially as we overcome the challenges of the past twelve months. But have you ever stopped to consider what it actually means to collaborate?

Since founding Barbal I find myself mulling this more and more. Why is collaboration so important? How does collaboration interface with related concepts like consensus or negotiation? How do we ensure that we build a document editor that is truly collaborative, rather than just allowing people to work together more efficiently?

When I used to run collaboration training in a professional services firm I would ask the attendees to give a definition. It would invariably be something along the lines of “working together to achieve a shared goal”.

They always identified both parts; implying that working together isn’t collaborative unless it’s toward a shared objective.

Including the “shared goal” aspect is critical, it differentiates collaboration from simply resolving resource capacity issues by putting more bums on seats. By collaborating the participants are working towards something they could not have accomplished on their own if they had more time, or without recognising there is a higher order objective than just doing their own job. It distinguishes collaboration from quality assurance processes or procedural pass off of work between people with different skills.

Having reflected on my own work in standardisation, engineering and business ownership and observing how others have sought to use Barbal’s collaborative document editor, I have distilled collaboration down to three different attitudes. I call them intents. They cause the behaviours people display at different times during a collaboration.

The three intents of collaboration are:

  • Creative
  • Consensus
  • Adversarial

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do result in very different outcomes for participants and their stakeholders.

Creative collaboration

Two people working together at a whiteboard

The old adage goes “two heads are better than one”. That’s because it’s often true. There are many types of work where working closely with someone else with similar or completely different views will turn up something that’s better than either could achieve by working in isolation. Creative collaboration isn’t limited to traditional “creative” industries, but can be applied in any discipline where problems need solving.

The purpose of creative collaboration is to seek synergy.

Consensus collaboration

Two professionals at a desk smiling and high-fiving

Often we have to work with others who have different core objectives, that might be a business that has to make money for its shareholders, or a delivery organisation that provides outcomes for its stakeholders. Consensus is a useful mechanism, it allows different parties to agree a bounded set of shared goals where there’s recognition that helping another party to achieve their goals has a multiplier effect on achieving one’s own goals too.

The purpose of consensus collaboration is seeking the highest order of agreement.

Adversarial collaboration

Shaking hands

Also in life, we have to work with others because we have to; usually because they have something we want. And more often than not it involves money and risk exchange. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been told to by a client or important stakeholder.

In this case the shared objective is simply to get the job done (and as quickly as possible). This collaboration is self-serving, but recognises the need for input or negotiation with others.

The purpose of adversarial collaboration seeking the lowest order of agreement.

In identifying the three intents of collaboration, I hope it helps you to recognise your own behaviours and perhaps is a quick reference framework to check the intent behind your work with others.

Where creative collaboration is laser-focused on a single shared goal, consensus collaboration allows space for each participant to bring their personal objectives to the table too. And whilst I would always advocate for consensus over adversarial collaboration, it can be useful to be aware in particular the distinction between these two intents and recognise the behaviours in the other people involved. Sometimes adversarial collaboration is necessary and collaborating at all is better than aggression.

Tom Bartley is co-founder of Barbal, a collaborative document editor that allows professionals to draft and review documents without the chaos.

This blog complements an upcoming blog in which we discuss the modes of collaboration; linear, real-time and concurrent It was originally published on Medium.