Most of us are familiar with the concept of teams. We know the importance of clear goals, focus and cohesion. Since Tuckman (1965!) we know that teams are built along predictable stages as forming, storming, norming and performing. We know that bringing in a new member may create fuzz. It might draw the team back to earlier stages. A huge body of team-knowledge is surrounding us and we love to share it. So did I. At least: until a few years ago.
I was working as a lecturer personal development at a business school. I finished a workshop on team building. A student came to talk to me and stated: “I love this course, it’s so interesting, but it’s not useful to me. The world I’m working in is so different from your world’. He had my hundred percent attention.
This student worked as a civil servant and worked on area development in a multi stakeholder environment. As such, government, citizens and enterprises join together to develop a region in a way that addresses the hopes, wishes and needs of different stakeholders. This student was not alone. I learned that a lot of my students worked in multiparty settings. They all came to the same conclusion: Multiparty collaboration is a different world with different rules. That is where I started my research on collaboratology.
Let me first give you some more examples of this type of collaboration. A school collaborates with businesses and the community to connect the school curriculum to real world experiences. In cluster collaboration businesses improve their competitiveness by focussing their collective efforts on joint targets like health, food or logistics. A biotech firm works together with research institutes and universities to increase the speed of innovation and lower the costs of product development.
Multiparty collaboration has become a very common way of addressing complex problems. But at the same time our knowledge on this type of collaboration is still based on concepts of teamwork that sometimes date back to the sixties.
So how does multiparty collaboration differ from the classic teamwork?
Let’s focus on the micro level, on that what happens at and underneath the table, usually the place where all these collaborative goals, ambitions, efforts and limitations are sorted out. Here are 5 reasons why.
Reason 1: Extra agendas rule the game
‘One team, one plan, one goal’ is a very acceptable motto for a team. In multiparty collaboration (MPC) the group has to deal with a multitude of agendas: the collective agenda (the reasons why the group collaborates), the personal agendas of the group members and the agendas of the stakeholders of the different members.
This multiplicity of interests, agendas and goals adds to the perceived complexity of the process. But on the other hand: all these interests are the fuel for the collaboration engine. They bring in different solutions, networks, assets. They create a greater chance that hick-ups will be solved. Trying to pin this all down to ‘one plan, one goal’ is counterproductive.
Reason 2: Power and leadership are distributed
Apart from self-directed teams, most teams are guided by one leader or project manager. In multiparty collaboration this is not the case, although the group may decide to appoint a coordinator or a temporary leader. It’s an interesting paradox. Maybe multiparty collaboration could benefit from clear leadership for the sake of structure or decision making power. But at the same time a powerful leader who pushes the agenda is often mistrusted for having a huge interest in the end result. With a strong leader the multiparty collaboration would probably become less powerful, because people may feel less involved and responsible and maybe would size down their contribution. So power is important to make things happen, but cannot be used freely and in multiparty collaboration should mainly be used outside the group.
Reason 3: Members are not exclusively dedicated to the group.
Regular professional teams like boards, project teams, invest in cohesiveness, mutual trust and understanding. The more challenges the team is facing, the more the members are aware of the need to be able to place blind trust in each other. But in multiparty collaboration, more often than not, members tend to be part of different groups. They don’t want to invest in every group in terms of trust, understanding and cohesiveness. They come, deliver (at it’s best) and they go. They rely on their experience and professionalism to tackle the issues that arise and less on goodwill or on deep knowledge of the personalities at the table.
Reason 4: Membership changes.
Never change a winning team! Changing membership of groups always creates fuzz. But in multiparty collaboration, people often are representatives of their stakeholders. Representation can change. Somewhere in the background a stakeholder can decide to send in a new representative. Also depending on the stage, different expertise can be needed. In a cluster collaboration on medical health, members (mainly government and research) learned that no one in the group had networks linked to entrepreneurs. So they had to change membership in order to be attractive to this type of participants. This relatively easy switching of membership adds to the feeling that investing in the group is not so useful. As a result members often try to rely on formality, rules, or political behaviour as a way of reducing the complexity.
Reason 5: Low trust as condition.
Once I heard of a team trainer who refused to start with team building ‘as long as the group didn’t trust each other’. The group was sent home and had to improve mutual trust. Only when they were successful he could start the team building project. To be honest, I thought this was quite hilarious. I would have loved to work on trust with the team and then tell the team trainer: “By the way, while we were improving our mutual trust, we felt we grew as a team. Thanks for the free advice!”
In teams low trust can be a big issue. In multiparty collaboration the starting point is a low level of trust. “How can I be sure that the other party will invest as much as we do? How can we be sure that the other one will not forge other coalitions with our knowledge? How can we be sure that the other one is not benefiting more whilst investing less?”
It’s a challenge to deal with this low trust. Moreover, members can’t take for granted that trust will grow steadily. Trust is always a very delicate issue that should be taken care of until the very end of the process.
Contemporary Teams vs multiparty collaboration
The careful reader will notice that the differences between teams and multiparty collaboration are not that black and white. Contemporary teams also deal with distributed leadership. Organisations do suffer from reorganisation and rapidly changing teams. Organisational teams work a lot across borders. Team members more often than not identify with several groups. Team leaders might address these developments as imperfections, immature versions of the perfect successful team, waiting for an opportunity to start team building. I think the most important lesson is to look at all these emergent ways of collaborating as a very interesting phenomenon. A phenomenon that should be respected and seen as a result of our changing world where networking and collaborating across borders becomes more important than performing in one team.