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Collaboration – not just cooperation

Do you have enough salty and spicy thinking?

Collaboration is one of those terms that brings interesting reactions in people. What does it really mean to you and your workplace? If it is 'critical' to staying relevant and innovative, what does it look like? Do you need to elevate it above simply cooperating together? Or do your people simply co-exist - they have similar or complementary roles, but never interact to make the work more effective. Collaboration - authentic collaboration - is something much bigger than cooperation. It unlocks thinking and approaches we may never have thought of alone. It helps us see the world from more than only one worldview. It's when two or more people come together and co-create.

A CEO client shifted her approach from telling people what to do to co-creating with them. They were growing quickly and had some archaic ways of working to shift. The CEO realised that if people didn't contribute to a new way or working we would never shift the status quo. As we put in processes to foster collaboration she would laugh, 'Just don't make us get into a circle and sing "Kumbaya" '. Even though it was tongue in cheek, she had previously seen collaboration as 'weird'. I think she imagined people wearing hessian underwear and standing around in a circle, doing group hugs and having a talk fest. To her credit, she stuck with the process of involving people more. Momentum grew as did buy-in and innovation.

People get scared about collaboration because they think: A: it's a waste of time
B: it doesn't go anywhere.

And they are right in many experiences of 'pretend collaboration'. For people who haven't thought about collaboration as a skill, they believe that you must throw all the rules out the window: of purposeful interaction, good communication, having direction, having some sort of plan, and assume it's just a 'festival of love'. That scares people off. And I get that. When we seek to work together in a more integrated way, it's also natural to fall prey to the illusion that because we're humans, we must be good collaborators. So, we wave the collaboration flag and say, 'Go for it!'

But our collaboration skills have been beaten out of us. Children have them in bucket loads. Give a group of children a major task to do and then stand back. They put us to shame with the way they work together to achieve a goal. Adults, on the other hand, have worked in so many companies ruled by silos that we've forgotten how to bring out the best in each other. We need to learn how to do it again.

The illusion of cooperation and coordination

We assume when we communicate something, we're collaborating. We assume when we are sharing information, we're collaborating. We are really only cooperating. Participating in a transaction of information. Moving up to authentic collaboration requires a certain mindset and a range of behaviours for it to succeed. It requires a mindset that's smart and strategic, so when we get together as a group, we have a plan of how are we going to collaborate. What is it that we're doing together? What is it we're trying to achieve? What's our purpose, and how do we stay on track?

Build a collaboration mindset - create a masterstock

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Have you got balance?

I was a business manager in a fine-dining Asian restaurant for several years. In Asian cuisine, one of the foundational dishes is a master stock. A master stock is made from a combination of a whole lot of spices and sauces and rich flavours come together. Within it is chilli, star anise, cinnamon bark, dried mandarin, soy, stock and other fragrant ingredients. The idea of the master stock is it's a big, bubbling, flavoursome sauce. The protein, beef, pork or chicken is then put in. It gets poached in this wonderful sauce. A chef's reputation often lies on the quality of their master stock.

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A high-quality master stock has got a great balance of hot, salty, sweet, and sour, which is the secret to many Asian dishes. Every day, out of the cool room, the chefs bring the big pot of master stock for the meats, the big pot of master stock for the poultry. It is heated up, and then the chefs add more to it to get the right taste and combination. At the end of the day, after they use it, they boil off all the impurities, and put it back in the cool room to bring it to the correct temperature for storage. In the restaurant that I worked in, the master stock was 17 years old. It started when the restaurant opened. Chefs who are artisans of the Asian master stock say it has got a life to it, a living thing, and you need to treat it with care.

I believe that a collaborative mindset in an organisation is like crafting an asian master stock. We need to have all the elements in balance: the sweet, the salty, the hot, the sour.

All these create a healthy, robust challenge. We avoid groupthink. We need a mindset that taps into the diversity that you need to have real collaboration.

Don't just go for the sweet

Too often we go on the wrong track with teams. We just seek harmony and alignment and agreement and people valuing each other. That is, of course, a critical element. It's the bedrock of the trust that we need to be able to do extraordinary work. But JUST sweetness will give you status quo. No one open any cans of worms thanks! We like it in our bubble of artificial harmony.


If we don't have a bit of spiciness, a bit of passionate debate, if we're not linked to purpose, if we don't get action oriented and a bit fired up, then apathy reigns.


We need people in our teams that give us good contrarian, salty thinking. It makes us look up and challenge our thinking. We get out of the box ideas and risk taking. Without salt, we move towards blandness.


At the same time, we need a bit of sourness in the mix. That edge that says we must do something about this. It's a dissatisfaction with the status quo. This sour approach lifts us out of symmetrical, linear thinking. We open to some asymmetrical approaches, not always looking at things that fit neatly. What do we need to look at that's different, causes dissonance and opposes the symmetry that we might like and be drawn to? How do we spend time deliberating on what could go wrong, and be okay with that sort of thinking? How do we challenge our assumptions? Being ok with NOT agreeing and testing our thinking is critical to high-quality thinking. Too often people with this innate ability are seen as troublemakers. They have a valuable skill - tap into it.

When we mix this thinking and approach, we start to push our status quo, and in a way that brings about exciting change - not anarchy or mutiny - to a vibrant master stock.

How do you create a rich and diverse collaborative process? One that co-creates extraoardinary ways of working?

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Tracey

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We are very excited to announce that my new book Glue: The Stuff That Binds Us Together to do Extraordinary Work is now available.

It has also recently featured in the Australian Leadership Blog.

Glue begins with the premise that we need to think above conventional teams - we need 21st-Century Tribes. They can bond faster, collaborate more authentically and learn deeply with each other. Just what we need in this fast paced and action packed world.

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