Thoughts on Collaboration

Over 30 years ago, in 1990, Michael Schrage wrote an insightful book on collaboration that has stood the test of time. In a minute, I will distill some of the insights from his book. But before I do, let’s fast forward 15 years.


In 2005, two professors from the University of Strathclyde Graduate School of Business, both experts in the study of “collaborative advantage”, wrote this:

“The overwhelming conclusion from our research is that seeking collaborative advantage is a seriously resource-consuming activity, so it is only to be considered when the stakes are really worth pursuing. Our message to practitioners and policymakers alike is don’t do it unless you have to.” (Huxham & Vangen, 2005).

On that cheery note, let’s head back to Schrage and see if we can find a way out of this mess. Is there a productive path for designing and guiding collaborations?


Schrage, is a Research Fellow with the MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business and Visiting Fellow in the Imperial College Department of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He has served as an advisor on innovation to major firms, including Mars, Procter & Gamble, Google, Intel, and Siemens.

So he’s got some chops.

Schrage defines collaboration this way:

Collaboration is the process of shared creation.

Some additional insights:

Collaborators accept and respect the fact that other perspectives can add value to their own.

Collaboration is a relationship with a dynamic fundamentally different from ordinary communication.

Collaborators enlarge each other’s understanding.

Collaboration involves the creation of shared meaning.

Collaboration runs deeper than coordinated actions.

Collaboration is both undervalued and misunderstood.

Scholars have been slow dissecting collaboration because it is such a complex phenomenon.

Now that we have a handle on what collaboration is, let’s return to Huxham and Vangen.


Is it really true that collaboration is both expensive and risky?

Well, it was probably true when they wrote their book in 2005.

But not anymore.

Through our research and practice — including 15 years of testbeds at Purdue University (beginning in 2005) — we have learned that collaborations emerge from conversations with a predictable structure and trajectory. They follow from “strategic conversations” designed with simple rules. (These are not, as Schrage suggests, ordinary communications.)

When we teach the skills needed to design and guide these conversations, collaborations form quickly and move toward measurable outcomes. Participants make adjustments as they learn by doing. We manage risk with rapid cycles of “double-loop learning”.

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