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Volume 23, Issue 24;   June 14, 2023: Pseudo-Collaborations

Pseudo-Collaborations

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Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due, in part, to performance management systems, lack of authority, or lack of access to information.

Although we can classify workplace collaborations in numerous ways, all forms of collaboration share one attribute: they bring together individuals, groups, or distinct entities to achieve a stated objective. The effectiveness of a particular collaboration or style of collaboration depends, in part, on how well it suits the organizational context that hosts it. But in terms of its stated objective, there is one form of collaboration that is invariably ineffective. I call it the pseudo-collaboration.

A wolf pack, probably preparing for a hunt

A wolf pack, probably preparing for a hunt. A male northern gray wolf weighs, on average, 36 kg (79 pounds). Working as a pack, wolves can take prey weighing much more. For example, an American Bison bull can weigh 1270 kg (2800 pounds). Wolves are successful because their collaborations are real.

Pseudo-collaboration is a form of collaboration that appears outwardly to meet the definition of collaboration. It has a stated objective, and it brings together people or organizational structures that assert — and often believe — that they're working together to achieve that objective. But pseudo-collaborations have elements that distinguish them from the more benign but fecklessly ineffective conventional collaborations. Pseudo-collaborations are inherently incapable (or nearly incapable) of producing the results toward which they claim to be striving.

Two questions naturally arise. First, what properties of pseudo-collaborations deprive them of the possibility of achieving their stated objectives? And second, how can pseudo-collaborations survive in organizations that are supposedly so careful about how they allocate their resources?

What makes pseudo-collaborations so ineffective

Here are three examples of factors that make pseudo-collaborations inherently unable to achieve their stated objectives.

Unintended consequences of the performance management system
Some performance Pseudo-collaborations appear outwardly
to be genuine, but they are inherently
incapable of producing the results
toward which they claim to be striving
management systems directly interfere with the performance of the pseudo-collaboration. For example, suppose Team A and Team B are engaged in a pseudo-collaboration, in addition to their regular responsibilities. And suppose that the organizational performance management system assesses the performance of these teams on the basis of a computed metric called velocity, defined to be the rate at which each team produces value from the tasks in their respective backlogs. Since neither team receives "velocity credit" for work performed in service to the collaboration, the teams both assign a low priority to collaboration work. It never gets done.
To address this problem would require including collaboration work in the teams' respective backlogs. But the teams resist this because they would be placing their own velocity ratings in each other's hands. That is, Team A might not be able to work on a task until Team B does its part. To limit this risk, both teams insist on excluding collaboration work from their backlogs.
Insufficient or poorly defined range of authority
To achieve their stated objectives, some collaborations require a defined range of organizational authority that empowers them to take the actions they must. If the actions they need to take require approval of other authorities outside the collaboration, then the effectiveness of the collaboration is at risk.
Two responses can mitigate this risk. Either entities that already possess the required authorities can be incorporated into the pseudo-collaboration, or the required authorities can be granted to the pseudo-collaboration. In many cases, both mitigations are precluded, because the pseudo-collaboration was deprived of them from the outset as a condition of its formation.
Inadequate access to information
Some executive activities, such as strategy development, are highly confidential. They proceed outside the awareness of most people in the organization, until their results are "rolled out" both internally and for the public. In some cases this work affects the work of pseudo-collaborations, but for reasons of security the information is withheld from the pseudo-collaborations.
One workaround for this issue is dissolution of the pseudo-collaboration. But in some cases that action could reveal or suggest the nature of the closely held activity. In these cases, organizations often let the pseudo-collaboration labor on, even though the results they produce, if any, could be compromised by their ignorance.

How Pseudo-collaborations persist

Pseudo-collaborations, by definition, produce little of value. Since most organizations try to allocate resources wisely, creating pseudo-collaborations and allowing them to persist would seem to be puzzling choices. But there are reasons why organizations might make those choices.

Unstated objectives provide one explanation. The pseudo-collaboration might be serving a purpose no one can state "out loud." For example, suppose Engineering views the Agile Software Initiative as unreasonable interference in their work. They would rather work the way they always have, and avoid all customer contact. And suppose further that the Investor Relations function has already announced publicly that in the coming three fiscal quarters, the Agile Software Initiative will make great progress in reducing both time to market the cost of developing new products. In such a case, ensuring that the Agile Software Initiative is a pseudo-collaboration would satisfy both Engineering and Investor Relations. The stated objective in this case is improving the engineering process. The unstated objective in this case is satisfying investors without upsetting engineers.

Other reasons for the persistence of pseudo-collaborations include pet projects, obstructing rivals' access to resources, and the need to comply with regulations, consent decrees, and other legal requirements. The possibilities are endless.

Last words

Although advocating for formation of a pseudo-collaboration can be a most cynical ploy, it's likely that the people directly involved in the collaboration regard the effort as genuine rather than a pseudo-collaboration. The intentional hobbling of a collaboration more likely occurs at the level of the organization responsible for strategic resource allocation. Even at that level, most people involved are trying to create a path to the objective, rather than setting roadblocks in that path. Go to top Top  Next issue: Asking Burning Questions  Next Issue

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