Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Secrets of successful collaboration: 6. balance formality with informality

It is important that collaboration's strike the right balance between formality and informality. Formal agreements and processes help a collaboration not only operate efficiently and effectively but also lay the foundations upon which partners can begin to build trusting and mutually supportive relationships. Informal interaction encourages partners to do this building: it offers a safe and sheltered space within which partners can sound each other out on a personal level, form "off-the-record" relationships with each other and eventually develop personal networks and back channels that can oil the wheels of formality. This lubrication is essential; without it, the complexity of the issues and problems being addressed (plus the subtle intricacies of interpersonal and inter-organisational dynamics) will make it inevitable that the formal agreements and processes of a collaboration will at some point shudder and stall under the stress and strain of the diverse and competing demands placed upon them.

Also, seeking a balance between formality and informality redresses the widespread imbalance in favour of formality built into the culture and fabric of many collaborations. Understandably, and with good reason, partners' parent organisations and other sponsors of collaborative working demand the tangible reassurance of formal systems and the accountability and measurability they enable. All too often, however, these formal systems fill almost all of the collaborative space. They preoccupy the minds and dictate the actions of partners and occupy the physical, virtual and perceptual spaces where informal interaction could have taken place: meetings are always formal, IT is always used for official purposes and people see people managed by systems rather than systems managed by people.

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