If you listen primarily to the popular press, you could easily be convinced 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 that innovative entrepreneur.
Thus a key skill and focus for every aspiring entrepreneur is the ability to collaborate with others who have complementary skills in delivering the many decisions required in business, including marketing, financial, operations, and support. Solo or autocratic entrepreneurs usually don’t survive, due to required skills and a workload far beyond the capacity of a single human.
Yet 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. 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, while consensus and compromise imply win-lose or less than optimal results.
- Open-plan offices are required to facilitate collaboration. Open office plans simply squeeze more employees in less space, and often reduce productivity and collaboration, due to noise, distractions, and constant interruptions. 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 decision, but arbitrary or autocratic decisions based on no data or no insights may actually cause more damage than no decision. Collaborative good decisions recommended by a well-rounded team can be made quickly and effectively.
- Company founders can edict collaboration in teams. Collaboration has to start at the top. The actions of a founder, more than words or policies, set the culture. This has to start with good communication and participation from all executives, as well as listening and providing constructive feedback. Effective collaboration requires trust at all levels.
- 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 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 make the best arguments for a successful solution. Thus collaborative environments often highlight rewardable individuals.
- Deploy the right tools and collaboration will happen naturally. Good tools can facilitate the collaborative process, but won’t create the culture and trust necessary for effective results. Deploying collaboration tools and platforms, such as Slack or Workplace by Facebook, are certainly 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 abilities and skills to master.
Building a collaborative culture is not an easy evolution from a long-established authoritarian environment, so it pays to get it right the first time in your new business. It also may be a hard concept to accept if you are a fiercely independent entrepreneur driving an innovative vision. Yet in my experience, it’s a required step today for transforming an idea into a sustainable business.