A Rethink: Ownership over Collaboration

Colleagues use board and sticky notes to plan project

“Collaboration,” as an industry buzzword, is meant to rally the troops to work together—collectively working toward a common goal. As such, “collaborators” are equally responsible and accountable for an outcome, with the expectation of working together as one cohesive unit. It sounds great during meetings and workshops to say everyone will “collaborate” on the next steps and action items while promoting the message that everyone is going to work nice-nice to get things done.

I sometimes cringe when I hear the word collaboration tossed around too frequently in meetings. Reckless use of the word and the implication that everyone is going to happily collaborate on action items wastes time, creates more ambiguity, and lacks accountability.

Look at your own household for some practical examples of why collaboration is nice in theory but fails on delivery. Do you collaborate on doing the dishes or laundry? Probably not. More likely members of your family take turns with chores or one person gets stuck with it. Someone needs to own and execute these chores at the task level, or they will not get done. You can happily divide responsibilities, but without assigning ownership to a specific individual at the specific task level, you will create a lack of accountability for who is practically driving the chore to completion. If you assume everyone in your house is just going to work together to get things done, you probably don’t have any clean socks.

At a project level, I've seen this false sense of security from shared ownership cause miscommunication, delays, and added frustration for the collaborators themselves. There is a general hesitation to put "names in boxes" on collaborative cross-departmental projects, when in fact you'll find doing so leads to stronger task orientated execution. Assigned ownership provides clear accountability and promotes stronger teamwork—the "task owner" is working under the assumption of full responsibility regardless of required input from others. It’s important for individuals to understand their ownership of items, and therefore success or failure doesn’t fall to the “collaborators,” but to themselves.

Let’s rethink how we use the word “collaboration” and start calling on specific individuals to raise their hand to take ultimate responsibility. That’s how they’ll sink or swim, and how you’ll actually get things done.