The Collaboration Paradox: Why So Many Leaders Sabotage Their Own Collaborations—and Some Tactics for Getting Things Right

7/7/08

In high-tech fields such as nanotechnology and “smart” devices, breakthroughs increasingly demand the integration of multiple technical fields. Knowing how to achieve real collaboration will make the difference between success and failure. But many people are very skeptical when asked to join collaborations, because the majority of these end up being dominated by the same voices, so it’s a waste of time for others to make much effort. Either that, or the group stays split into the original camps that were supposed to be brought together. Either way, there is no true benefit gained by working “together.”

One reason real collaboration is so rare is that few people have paid much attention to how to achieve it. In fact, many executives mistakenly believe that to lead they must dominate and control every activity, which discourages others from collaborating. But if you’ve ever worked with an expert collaborator, you know that quite the opposite is true. To get a diverse crowd to work together, the leader actually has to give up a certain amount of control, take some risks, and encourage creative thinking. By doing this, the leader creates an atmosphere of trust and openness. He or she proves that they really want to hear all opinions, and that everyone will be treated fairly, but with accountability.

Many people can’t even recognize real collaboration when they see it. But a few people seem to naturally excel at it. They take the time and effort to set the stage properly and get the right people working together. The goal is to make each participant feel comfortable offering honest opinions and their best ideas. The key is to create a balance between respect for each other’s contributions and an appreciation for every idea being constructively challenged.

The best examples that I have seen of this “collaborative state” are in some surprising places. I first witnessed it while helping to develop a new type of medical meeting in the 1970s: the live demonstration course. Such meetings were, and still are, controversial because they telecast real-time surgical procedures on actual patients—a daring technique, but one that seems to have a lot of advantages as well. These meetings were also unusual when they started because they included commercial, academic, and professional presenters, which was very different from the academically focused society meetings.

Live demonstration meetings like TCT, the Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics symposium, and ISET, the International Symposium on Endovascular Therapy, have since become very popular because they facilitate more learning than typical society meetings do. Done correctly, a live demonstration course showcases “peak collaboration.”

The key to these meetings’ success is having an adept moderator, who sets the stage and expertly manages the participants. The sessions feature diverse views, experience, and culture. It is a much broader range of views than you see at a traditional academic meeting, and here, each comment is judged by its content, not by the speaker’s “credentials.” And while the discussion is often quite candid, there is little or none of the pontification and bullying that is so common in most boardrooms or at academic meetings. Everyone feels comfortable speaking, but the level of the discourse is also very high.

During the actual live demonstrations, an expert panel with contrarian views comments, questions, and advises the procedure in real time to yield a rich synthesis of opinions, expertly shaped by a skilled moderator. The audience may even help direct discussion through audience response systems. The audience gets an extraordinary learning experience, while the patient has the benefit of a whole panel of experts’ opinions.

There’s a wide range of ideas constantly flowing, and the best ones tend to rise above the others much more easily here than in other settings. In my opinion, the live demonstration meeting has been the most significant factor in accelerating the advancement of medical technology. Much of that success is due to the way the meeting moderators bring the audience and other participants to a “collaborative state.”

Another example of true collaboration occurs at FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a student competition in which teaching collaboration is a specific goal, so it becomes ingrained into student behavior. The way the game is designed, teams cannot win without collaborating—not just among themselves, but with competitors, judges, and observers as well. On top of that, the contestants learn “gracious professionalism,” which obliges everyone to behave in a fair and polite manner. FIRST brings participants to a collaborative state.

These examples show that the roots of real collaboration are openness, creativity, and accountability. Individuals must feel their participation is not just encouraged but vital to the endeavor, and that they can express any view to further that goal. People should be rewarded for digging deep and creating a group culture for curiosity. The goal is not to hold to a comfortable path but to change the level of discourse.

Why is this so difficult to achieve?

Despite all the inflated talk about the importance of teamwork, anti-collaborative traits are ingrained early and reinforced throughout our education and careers. We learn from the start of school that we won’t be rewarded for collaborating. Rather, the big payoffs come from blowing our own horn. And the more specialized we become in our fields, the more tightly we circle the wagons. To get real collaboration, leaders must work against the system, setting clear incentives to encourage individuals to say what they think and advance their best, or most dangerous, ideas. We must also discourage the type of bullying or patronizing behavior that makes people wary of speaking their minds. That is the paradox.

The best collaborators have learned that they gain more by sharing ideas than on their own—no matter how brilliant they are. Such individuals become the “impresarios” of collaboration. They work their magic on the participants, the agenda, and the environment to ensure a successful outcome.

Here are some tactics that can help bring a group into the “collaborative state”: First, recognize that if you exclude those with opposing views, you will have armed them with arguments to criticize the collaboration. You may hear: “They didn’t have the courtesy (or guts) to include me.” You can’t always win them over, but you can neutralize extreme views by talking to them in advance and then summarizing their views at the meeting in a way that respects them and puts their points in an objective and non-emotional context.

Next, examine the participants and ask these questions:

• Are different cultures, ages, silos, and levels of experience and understanding represented?
• Has the stage been set so that the expectations are reasonable and consistent?
• Is there a clear process for dialog that is understood by all?
• Is there an agenda that includes both what you will discuss and what you won’t?
• Are the roles clear for who is moderator, documenter, time keeper, etc.?
• Is there a clear and shared understanding of the desired outcome?
• Do you have a strategy for managing messenger killers, strong egos, or pontificators?

Use this information to carefully create an optimal environment for collaboration.

Groups like FIRST, ISET, and TCT are taking the right approach. The rest of us, particularly in the business world, must follow these leads, examine barriers to collaboration, and take clear steps not only to improve our collaborations but to teach our colleagues, and young people in particular, the skills necessary to become expert collaborators, too. After all, once the technical collaboration is over, to get innovations onto the market requires additional collaboration with an even wider range of participants, including advisors, competitors, potential customers, and regulators.

John Abele is a cofounder and director of Boston Scientific Corporation, chairman of the Argosy Foundation, and owner and developer of the Kingbridge Centre and Institute, a conferencing institute whose mission is to research, develop, and teach improved methods for interactive conferencing. He is also board chairman of FIRST ( For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a K-12 educational program. Follow @

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  • http://www.lymanbiopharma.com Stewart Lyman

    Interesting article, a key point being the relatively new concept of teaching students to collaborate as part of their education. One field that really lends itself to collaboration is biotechnology. It is usually much faster and cheaper to work with an expert who has developed an experimental model than to try and reproduce the same model in-house. Similarly, collaborating with someone to obtain a key reagent (along with the knowledge of how to correctly use it) brings benefits over reinventing the wheel and trying to make the reagent (e.g. protein or monoclonal antibody) yourself. Problems arise in collaborations primarily because scientists are not taught the proper way to collaborate as part of their training. The key to successful collaborations is to clarify at the outset what each party’s expectations are regarding the key issues, such as publications, presentations, authorship, time frame, etc. It always amazes me that people who would not dream of hiring someone to work in their homes without writing a detailed contract will enter into a collaboration with another scientist without ever discussing what each researcher wants to get out of the collaboration. Readers interested in the topic of how to facilitate successful research collaborations can request free reprints on a variety of collaboration topics on my Website. Stewart Lyman, Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC

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  • http://www.integrative-thinking.com Graham Douglas

    Thanks for this very helpful article.

    Clearly we need to change the way we train people to think, plan, organize, govern and act. We need to add training in Integrative Thinking and its derivatives to training in Critical Thinking.

    This training needs to be based on our recently much-improved scientific understanding of the human mind and our world.