If you listen primarily to the popular press, they could easily convince you that all successful startup businesses are built by one smart person, such as Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook or Jeff Bezos at Amazon. In reality, it takes a collaboration of many good people to build and run a business, even though the original idea probably did come from a single innovative entrepreneur.
Thus an essential skill and focus for every aspiring entrepreneur is the ability to collaborate with others who have the complementary skills in delivering the many decisions required in business, including marketing, financial, operations, and support. Due to the required skills and a workload far beyond the capacity of a single human, solo or autocratic entrepreneurs usually don’t survive.
There are many myths around collaboration that convince some to distrust or discount its value or use it ineffectively. Here are some of the common ones I hear, with my view on the truth and the myth antidote:
- Collaboration implies consensus and compromise. It’s common to assume that consensus and compromise entail win-lose or less than optimal results. In reality, collaboration with team members who have different expertise or come from different cultures opens more possibilities for making the best decision in a world of unknowns. It also leaves everyone with buy-in.
- Open-plan offices are required to facilitate collaboration. Open office plans simply squeeze more employees in less space. Due to noise, distractions, and constant interruptions, open-office plans frequently reduce productivity and collaboration. The best collaboration is done in a structured team environment, usually a meeting room, and managed by a team leader.
- Solutions through collaboration take too much time. Quick decisions may be better than no decisions, but arbitrary or autocratic decisions based on no data or insights may actually cause more damage than no decisions. A well-rounded, carefully directed team can make good collaborative decisions quickly and effectively.
- Company founders can edict collaboration in teams. Collaboration has to start at the top and requires trust at all levels. The actions of a founder, more than words or policies, set the culture. This has to start with excellent communication and participation from all executives, as well as listening and providing constructive feedback.
- Technology startups need experts more than collaboration. Technology alone doesn’t make a business. It has to be easily used, personalized, marketed, and supported. This requires innovative thinking outside the box, from a variety of disciplines, all working as peers. Experts working alone often fall victim to myopia and technical bias.
- The best new ideas come from leaders and executives. Good ideas come from everywhere, so the more voices and collaboration, the better. Often the lowest level customer-facing team members have a better idea of trends and competitive alternatives in the marketplace. Top management can then manage resources and implementation.
- Communications training is required before collaboration. A collaborative culture facilitates improved communication skills, as team members play to their strengths and learn to be authentic and genuine. The best communications training is always learning by doing, with mentoring, for understanding alternatives and the ability to reach agreement faster.
- Collaboration mutes the ability to recognize and reward individuals. In fact, if you participate in a collaborative process, it becomes more obvious which individuals are most often suggesting innovative approaches or making the best arguments for a successful solution. Thus collaborative environments often highlight rewardable individuals.
- Deploy the right tools and collaboration will happen naturally. Useful tools can facilitate the collaborative process, but they won’t create the culture and trust necessary for effective results. Deploying collaboration tools and platforms, such as Slack or Workplace by Facebook, are indeed a part of the solution, but they are by no means the solution.
- Team members instinctively know how to collaborate. Everyone’s interpretation of what it means to work collaboratively is different, so every organization needs to provide a clear set of guidelines on how people should interact. This should include a clarification of attitude required, cultural guidelines, tools, and skills to master.
Building a collaborative culture is not a natural evolution from a long-established authoritarian environment, so expect it to be a bit challenging to get it right in your new business. It also may be a hard concept to accept if you are a fiercely independent entrepreneur driving an innovative vision. However, in my experience, collaboration is a required step today that pays off by transforming an idea into a sustainable business.