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Is Collaboration Creating Action or Stalling Progress?

Image via Laszio Halazi/

It's often said that a camel is a horse designed by committee. I found myself thinking about this while working with a client on an organizational realignment initiative where the leader engaged his senior team in looking at a new organizational model better aligned to their recently expanded mission. My client has made changes to the model based on the team’s input and, as a result of using a collaborative process, has created a broad sense of ownership among the senior team.

During a staff meeting with the entire office, my client shared a graphical depiction of the organizational model that looked a bit different than what the leadership team had last seen. In fact, ninety-eight percent of the information was the same as what the senior team co-created. The leader added what he thought were minor, clarifying details. After the leader shared the graphic during the staff meeting, I was talking with a member of the leadership team who was agitated over the additions the leader made to the model. In fact, she crumpled up the handout of the model and threw it in the trash.  This was unusual behavior from this person and it left me with a big question about what was really at the root of her reaction? 

It occurred to me that we had set up the process in such a way that the leadership team believed they were the decision-makers; they not only felt--but had--a strong sense of ownership. We were clear in the beginning that the senior team would have an opportunity to provide input, weigh-in and be engaged in designing an organizational model for the future. What we failed to do was be clear that the leader maintained the final approval and decision-making authority and had the right to make whatever changes he felt were right for his organization. 

Balancing Collaboration and Action

How does a leader appropriately balance collaboration with getting things done? The seemingly easy way for a leader to get stuff done is to be directive. In some cases this may be appropriate. When it’s not an effective strategy is where the leader needs to generate ownership or buy-in. There is a sweet spot where collaboration happens in the way that we all know can be powerful:  soliciting ideas, gaining different perspectives, generating excitement and enthusiasm, and ultimately creating broad ownership for action. But what about when all these great collaboration efforts occur and then progress stalls or frustration takes hold? There must be a point at which collaboration ends and someone, ideally the leader, makes a decision and moves things forward. Setting this expectation up front is key. Before launching your next collaboration effort, consider the following three guidelines:

  • Be clear up front about the need for collaboration.  Is collaboration actually required or is it being done to check a box?  Is the collaboration likely to generate new ideas, upgrade thinking, or create broad ownership for action?  If not, don’t do it.  It will take up valuable time and resources and if people’s input isn’t used in the end is likely to result in frustration.
  • Identify who will participate in the collaboration effort.  Being explicit about who is going to be engaged should be done up front.  If it’s not made explicit who will be involved people may assume they will be.   It’s no fun to have to “un-invite” someone from anything and it’s even less fun if you are the person being “uninvited.” 
  • Clarify the process up front.  As with most things in life, clarifying expectations is critical.  Let people know what will be done with their inputs and how the collaboration will result in action. Most importantly, if the final approval, details, or decision-making resides with the leader, let everyone know.   If the leader might make changes to whatever results from the collaboration, be explicit, be clear and communicate this up front.   

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(Image via Laszio Halasi/

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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