It is often said that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We all, however, probably know of situations where the whole was very much less than the sum of its parts because the individuals or organisations that made up the parts spent most of their time arguing and fighting about resources, or how to achieve their objectives.  

In other words, the mere act of putting things together does not necessarily improve them. To get any kind of synergy, you also have to think about how things will come together. This tweet from Steve Stewart-Williams is a nice example of how something as simple as coordinating the timing can produce a very particular, and very attractive, effect. The gif, also, however, holds another lesson—and possibly a warning.

Each ball in the gif is simply going backwards and forwards on its own trajectory—but in a coordinated way. None of them is connected to the others, or actually affected by or affecting any of the others. The timing of their movement is simply coordinated. In other words, sometimes ‘less is more’ when working together.

Teams vs. groups

This is an issue that also crops up when talking about working in teams—or should that be groups? The two are not exactly the same. Academics and management practitioners define teams as groups working together towards a common cause. In other words, teams are always groups, but groups are not always teams. Groups often have characteristics or even a purpose in common, but are not usually working towards the same end. Teams generally work much more closely together, and are often interdependent.

Most of us, for all that managers like to talk about ‘teams’, actually work more often in groups. We may come together into project teams from time to time, but it is likely that more often, we would define what we do as working in groups: alongside, rather than ‘with’ others. Each person has their own objectives, which may be related to those of others, but are probably not exactly the same. 

A spectrum of co-working

There is a similar issue when you look at how organisations work together. Robyn Keast is an Australian academic whose research and practice focus is networks and collaboration. She suggests that there are three main levels of co-working:

  • The lowest level is cooperation. At this level, organisations maintain control of their own resources, objectives and goals, but may adjust what they do to fit with another organisation. They may also share information about particular issues.  A low level of trust is involved, and the relationships are not complicated. 
  • The second level is coordination. At this level, organisations still retain power over what they are doing, but are likely to be sharing resources and information around particular projects, and may also have some shared goals. There is a medium level of trust involved, and organisations are likely to be looking at working together and building relationships into the medium term at least.
  • The third (top) level is collaboration. At this level, organisations share power, resources, and goals. Employees consider themselves accountable to the network, not the organisation. There is a high level of trust involved, and organisations are looking at relationships lasting at least 3 to 5 years. This level is also known as partnership in business, and may involve structural changes such as joint ventures.

This idea can be expanded either side of the three levels into competition and amalgamation. However, we can consider those three the main levels of co-working.

Choosing the right level

Why does this matter? Because often, organisations will decide that they need to collaborate, and start trying to do so. Collaboration, however, is hard. It requires real change in how organisations operate, and in some cases, in their values. Many collaborations therefore fail, and organisations and individuals give up the idea of co-working, disheartened.

The real issue is not that organisations are doing collaboration wrong, or that it is just too difficult. It is often that it was actually unnecessary. They didn’t need to combine their planning, resources, and goals. They didn’t need to share power. All they needed was to coordinate, perhaps, or even simply to cooperate: not to get in each other’s way. 

Organisations and individuals alike need to think hard about what is needed in their relationships before embarking on a full partnership. Sometimes, simply coordinating the timing of the little balls is enough.

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