Collaboration + Failure = Success

Collaboration is defined as ‘the action of working with someone to produce something’. At The Skills Collective it’s one of the five core values that define who we are and how we do business. We work together to achieve more than we can alone, and to give our clients the tools they need to achieve their business goals. For us, it’s at the heart of everything we do and it’s about much more than just not doing something yourself. 

True collaboration is a meeting of minds, of purpose and of values. In order to succeed in areas of creativity and innovation, skills we prioritise because we know how much they drive success in our business, we must be open to conversation and insight from all angles. 

Opening yourself to different perspectives and new ideas can be challenging. You almost certainly risk hearing something that you don’t want to hear. Being committed to working together to achieve something more than you can yourself means that you are willing to take that risk in order to achieve better results. You are willing to pursue collaboration as an opportunity to learn and grow as part of something bigger.

There are obvious ways to collaborate where both parties contribute something, and both get just as much from the experience. In this way, we choose to partner with organisations whose aims align with our own and whose skills complement ours to work with us on the delivery of certain projects. For example, we work with a team called The People Portfolio who provide the HR and people focussed services that we offer our clients. Their experience adds to the array of skills that we can offer as part of our portfolio giving us the opportunity to provide more support to more businesses. 

We also collaborate with our clients. The relationship we have with them is symbiotic. We add value to their business by delivering on a specific project to achieve something they could not have without professional outsourced support, and we learn from them too. When we work on a project we act as an extension of their team, as committed to achieving their goals as they are. That means we have to truly understand the people and the brand so that we can represent them in a way that is impactful and authentic. It also means we may have to work with other suppliers that are contributing to the project in order to get the job done on an even larger scale. 

So far so standard. Most successful organisations embrace these types of collaborations because they offer a natural fit and an obvious return on the effort involved, usually financial. For us though, collaboration goes beyond the obvious. We also have conversations with our competitors about opportunities to work together. Shocking, I know. But why is this notion so jarring?

Think back to that definition of collaboration, because there is another that invites us to think differently, and that might explain our horror when we consider working with someone we consider to be a competitor. Collaboration can also be defined as ‘traitorous cooperation with the enemy’, as in ‘he faced a charge of collaboration’.

In business we use lots of language that deliberately sets us apart from others doing similar work to us. We ask what’s your USP, and who is in your comp set? We do often think of those others as the enemy, an entity we are in opposition to and with whom we would never dream of working. Those who fall into the trap of this divisive mindset are missing out.

In our case we are a very small team and can sometimes achieve much more when working with someone else. Partnering with someone who offers similar services to us means that we might be able to bid for a tender that would otherwise be beyond our means. In fact, we have recently just completed a project where we worked as part of a team of 24 trainers to deliver a virtual learning and development programme to almost 2,000 people. Each of those trainers, and most certainly the company that designed the training material, could be thought of as our competitors. Instead, we saw the opportunity in what we could achieve together, the largest virtual training experience ever delivered in Scotland. 

Working with our competitors can give us a new way of doing things and access to people, networks and opportunities that we wouldn’t otherwise have. All of this means that we can add value for even more people and learn something along the way. These are far more important outcomes for us than isolating ourselves from the rest of the industries we operate in. When you begin to care about more than simply the bottom line or what you can get from an experience, your business will undoubtedly benefit more. 

We have to look beyond the obvious because sometimes the unlikely combination works. Sometimes it’s genius in fact. Think about all those music collaborations that you thought wouldn’t work but you can’t get the songs out of your head. Linkin Park and Jay-z, Run DMC and Aerosmith, Rihanna, Kanye and Paul McCartney are just a few. 

Unlikely brand partnerships can have even more of an impact. In 2019 McDonalds in Argentina was raising money for childhood cancer charities and was donating all proceeds from Big Mac sales for one day only. In a bid to support the cause, McDonald’s ultimate rival Burger King halted sales of its Big Mac equivalent the Whopper burger. While only lasting a day, this surprising collaboration had a myriad of benefits for both businesses, not to mention the incredibly worthy cause they were supporting.

In any type of collaboration, whether surprising or obvious, we’re aiming for a combination reminiscent of strawberries and cream, or gin and tonic if that’s more your vibe. We want contributors to bring a unique flavour that when combined makes something even better. Which is great when you pull it off.

Sometimes it won’t work though. Sometimes we will end up with cheese and chocolate, delicious on their own but heinous together (in my humble opinion, no judgement here if that’s your thing). Sometimes we will fail no matter how much effort we put in. And that’s okay. 

Potential failure is a risk of any effort, not just collaborating with others. Whenever we try something new there is the chance that it might not work. Fear of this outcome can often hold us back from even trying in the first place. For me, that’s the real failure, not even trying.

We are taught, especially in areas of business, that failure is a shameful experience to be avoided at all costs. We believe failure to be a permanent outcome that defines who we are. But really, failure is finite. It teaches us how to succeed better. 

We need to stop being so afraid of failure because all that does is hold us back. In almost every area of our lives, the best stuff happens just outside our comfort zones. When you take on that new job or start a new relationship, you’re navigating new emotional landscapes and learning all the time. 

If we hope to achieve greatness for ourselves and in our businesses, we have to be able to push ourselves across the threshold of our comfort. And sometimes we can achieve that by working alongside others. They inspire us to think differently, to push the boundaries of what we can do, to try something new and to experiment. There is so much we can learn, and so much of our own skills and experience we can teach, by collaborating with others. Sometimes too, the very act of collaborating protects and insulates us from some of the risks of failure in the first place. 

However you define success, it’s likely that collaboration can help get you there. My hope is that you can overcome the patterns of thinking and behaviour that hold you back from going for it so that you can give yourself a chance to achieve something remarkable.

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Sarah-Jane Dale
Sarah-Jane Dale

Sarah-Jane Dale is Co-Founder and Director of The Skills Collective, a highly collaborative virtual head office service offering outsourced professional support services to businesses that want to do more with what they have.

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