Collaboration is the hot topic in business these days. Entrepreneurship is full of folks throwing that word around like it’s the next secret to success. And they’re right. Many of us got the message loud and clear that our big visions and missions for world change require us cracking the code on how to work together. From books like Tribes and Tribal Leadership to organizations like Super Power Experts and CEO Space International, team leaders and pioneers have any number of resources to choose from in their quest to master collaboration. But not all perspectives on collaboration are created equal and not all situations are ready for collaboration.

That’s right. Collaboration cannot be the first step toward achieving a goal…any goal. In every successful collaboration, three key elements exist. And these elements MUST be present in order for any collaboration to succeed. Of course there are others, like a clear mission, a goal, necessary resources, etc. Those are the easy ones. Those are the ones everybody wants to talk about. But what about the ones nobody wants to talk about. The ones that require a bit of self-reflection, self-responsibility, transparency, and real communication. And here’s the secret, the real secret, very few people are truly ready to collaborate.

Dick Meets Peter

Here’s the scene: Dick is at a business conference and he meets Peter. During their conversation, he tells Peter about his big idea. Then Peter says something like, “Oh my goodness! I’m starting something very similar. We should work together.” And then Gina walks up and introduces herself as someone who just filed the paperwork to form a corporation doing…wait for it…something similar. At the exact same moment all of them say, “It must be fate.” And then they grasp hands and go skipping off into the land of collaborative business success. (insert overly exaggerated happily-ever-after-type music here)

But it doesn’t work that way, does it? For every bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hopeful entrepreneur embarking on the next big company (usually the next Facebook, Über, Apple, Google), there are thousands of others with stories about failed partnerships, failed projects, failed investments, etc. And most of them have bruises and scars from a collaboration gone wrong.

Why? What happens between naive and jaded?

Premature collaboration.

No matter how amazing Dick’s idea might be, without the three crucial elements for a successful collaboration, it doesn’t stand a chance.

So, let’s review those:

1. 50 Shades of Leadership

Here’s the down and dirty…somebody has to be on top. Somebody has to lead. While it’s possible for two or more people to perform side-by-side, that takes skill.

The biggest mistake made here is people confuse collaboration with democracy. It’s a nice idea that a group can come together and move a project forward without a solid leader, but the road to success is littered with carcasses of kumbaya stories of collabocracies gone wrong.

Which leads to the single most determining factor in the success of a collaboration.

Personal development.

If the individuals involved in a collaboration don’t have strong self-identities and some degree of self-actualization, the collaboration quickly turns into a competitive environment with the group members desperately attempting to define themselves and their worth through the collaboration. Insecurity is an incredible burden to place on any fledgling venture.

Most of the time leadership is overlooked because there is some sort of power abdication happening. A lot of people have amazing ideas, but when they start down the road of truly incubating those ideas into viable businesses, they quickly realize just how daunting that task can be. Each step along the way it gets more and more attractive to collaborate, aka form a team in hopes that the team magically creates the business, thus negating the need to face fear, doubt, insecurity, etc.

In the example of Dick, Peter, and Gina, who’s going to lead? It’s uncomfortable to have those conversations and they easily get overlooked in the excitement of birthing a new project. But as the discussions develop, that question needs to be addressed.

2. Role Playing

When two or more people come together, it’s important to establish roles and expectations to avoid disappointment and hurt feelings.

This goes way beyond the traditional idea of making sure all the obvious business verticals are covered. Of course branding, marketing, strategy, finance, etc. are all important, but most people get that. This type of role consideration focuses on who is equipped to handle leadership, critical thinking, research, conflict, negotiations, etc.

Piggybacking off the personal development concept, knowing each person’s position within the collaboration is important. Whether there’s a single leader or a leadership team, it’s important to know who is responsible for guiding and operating the project and who is responsible for supporting it.

The biggest mistake made here is when people think they’re collaborating and really they’re just playing a supporting role in someone else’s project. Or when they really want to collaborate, but should be playing a supporting role.

Not everyone has done the personal work necessary to be able to participate in a collaboration. If individuals move into a collaboration prematurely, without a strong sense of self and the cellular confidence necessary to truly contribute to a team, they tend to use their affiliation with the collaboration as a means of defining themselves, or worse, pitting themselves against others involved to make themselves feel superior. When it comes to playing roles, the team is only as strong as its weakest link. That weak link can destroy a collaboration before anyone realizes what’s going on.

A good rule of thumb here is to look for individuals who have a high degree of self-actualization, self-responsibility, and a decent mastery of self. It’s even better if they’ve already achieved success in some capacity, verified success. Those individuals tend to bring great value to a collaboration. If someone doesn’t possess those qualities, perhaps they can play a supporting role. Every project needs supporters.

3. Bare it All

If you truly want to collaborate, adopt an I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours philosophy.

Transparency is the new currency in business and that’s not changing any time soon. Being able to establish trust and determine trust are key components in business success.

With the advent of the internet and social media emerged a world of self-proclaimed experts. It’s so easy for someone to make themselves look good online and then go from business conference to networking group selling the same story.

The biggest mistake made here is everyone wants to stay in the, “I love you, you love me” phase. When Dick says, “I created a business that does XYZ and sold it for 5 million dollars,” Peter might get excited and say, “Awesome! That’s exactly the experience this type of project needs.” And Gina may enthusiastically nod her head in agreement. It may be six months down the road before Peter and Gina find out that Dick fabricated that entire story and he never created a business and, instead, makes a living talking others into trusting him with their ideas, capital, intellectual property, etc. Ultimately, they have to face the fact that they really don’t know Dick. (Really, you didn’t see that one coming?)

It gets better.

If Peter and Gina had a due diligence process in place and had asked a few pointed questions prior to moving into collaboration, they would’ve seen Dick run.

This issue is so easy to mitigate. Having a solid due diligence mindset, a transparency philosophy, and a vetting practice prior to getting involved with anyone in business is not just smart, it’s essential in today’s business environment.


Successful collaborations stand on trust. Trust develops over time:

There’s no way to skip steps in the process of establishing trust. However, operating in transparency expedites the process.

It’s easy to fabricate your story and talk people into hiring you to do things you have no business doing (literally), but eventually that reputation will catch up to you. Don’t be a Dick.

This isn’t the typical conversation about business success, but it is becoming more and more commonplace. The writing is on the wall — collaboration is key for businesses moving forward. The pace and scope of business is only getting faster and more complex. Navigating it requires agility, pivotability (shout out to Adam Markel), resources, and a willingness to come together to develop creative and sustainable solutions. The great leaders of tomorrow won’t shy away from these dialogues. Many of them are already mastering collaboration at levels yesteryear’s businesses never dreamt possible.

Before you embark on the next big collaborative venture, remember this little tidbit from Dick, Peter, and Gina…partnerships are good, threesomes are great, groups are even better, but without a little prescreening and honest communication, someone (or everyone) will end up feeling put out.

Practice safe collaboration.

Originally published at