How To Navigate The Shades Of Collaboration Conversations

There are a few conversations that I hear among my colleagues every day. Often, they revolve around a theme of collaboration, with phrases like “we are very collaborative” and “we are looking for a collaborative solution.” Bu these phrases seem to have a different meaning every time.

The word “collaborative” is one of the most overused, vague buzzwords that everyone seems to throw around today just to improve appearances. As long as you add “collaboration” – to project, technology, process, behavior, or anything else –- it must be a positive development. Just adding that word alone must make it fit the definition of twenty-first-century lawyering, right?!

When it comes to a “collaboration” discussion, I love asking “how” and “why.” This is where your law school skills and, in my case, experiences as a litigator in a past life, come in handy. After all, you can take a woman out of the law, but not the law skills out of the woman.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when evaluating your own collaboration process.

How: Sequential v. Simultaneous

First, when discussing collaboration, I like to understand whether it is sequential or simultaneous. In other words, do we take turns, or do we work together at the same place and time?

Sequential collaboration systems –- for example, check-in and check-out –- is a form of a ticketing system. It is akin to the ticket you get before waiting in line at the DMV or a sandwich shop and hold onto until your number is called. Such a dated system is not collaborative, at least in the true sense of the word. It is aimed at creating order in an otherwise complex situation.

Simultaneous collaboration is very different. It allows different stakeholders to be at the same place, at the same time, contributing together. Simultaneous collaboration is an opportunity to gain multiple efficiencies because everyone is speaking to each other in real-time. These are not available with the sequential, ticketing system.

Who: Within the Legal Organization? Others in the Company? With Stakeholders Outside of the Company?

Second, who will be collaborating? Is the collaboration limited to employees within your legal department or does it reach the rest of your company? Does it allow outside stakeholders to chime in? Increasingly, we create multi-stakeholder mashups where contributors from inside and outside of your organization contribute to the final product

Relatedly, if you allow collaboration of multi-stakeholders, then it is worth asking on what terms and how deeply. Will everyone participates equally? Will anyone have an approval — and veto — power? Will anyone be allowed to observe and chime in? Importantly, who makes the final decision, and under what circumstances? Is there anyone who leads the collaborative process?

Of course, as with any subject, there is no shortage of questions you can ask about “collaboration.” In my experience, focusing on “how” and “why” gets me closer to understanding what collaboration means in a specific context. The bottom line is this — a lot of substance is lost when buzzwords are thrown around. Your training and experiences as a lawyer more than equip you to have a substantive, clear conversation, not a superficial one.

Part of Olga V. Mack’s series of Above the Law articles.

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