Five Boston medical institutions were concerned about their survival and continued success within an increasingly competitive health sector.
One of the five institutions suggested that they meet formally to discuss how they could work together to address their mutual concerns.
The other four institutions agreed that such a meeting was needed. The meeting was held. The issues were discussed. No decisions were taken.
Immediately after the meeting, two of the five institutions had an informal discussion in a car park; neither party disclosed what was discussed.
The formal meetings dragged on; nothing was agreed; no actions were taken.
Eventually, the two institutions that had met informally in the car park decided to go their own way; they agreed to merge. The merger was implemented smoothly and successfully.
Subsequently, two of the three remaining institutions (perhaps feeling they needed to respond in kind to safeguard their interests) also decided to merge. The merger was implemented successfully, but by no means smoothly.
The institution that had started the process by bringing everyone together became a bystander to events.
Whatever happened in the car park influenced and shaped the actions that came after it: who collaborated with whom; how they collaborated and when they did it. It also affected how well collaborative processes were implemented.
The coming-together of institutions and organisations creates a tapestry of perceptions, assumptions and experiences that immediately begins influencing events.
The two medical institutions that merged first knew each other well and had similar outlooks and ways of working. The two institutions that merged second had less in common, both with each other and with the other institutions involved. This was enough, without any further complexities of perception or relationship, to create a powerful and influential background dynamic to discussions about potential collaborative working.
During formal discussions this tapestry of perceptions, assumptions and experiences remained submerged in the background (covertly influencing people's thinking). During informal discussions it floated towards the surface (obviously influencing people's actions and decisions).
When seeking to collaborate pay close attention to what happens informally. Even better, make informality a key aspect of the way you operate. Do not leave it out in the cold of a corridor or car park.
If you embrace informality, you are more likely to be able to identify and address the background influences that are guiding people's thinking and actions.
If you do not embrace informality, you may still achieve success but at more cost and with less choice. If you are very unlucky, you may find it is you left out in the cold.