Recently there has been quite a lot of discussion on collaboration at the office. And it seems some colleagues have been struggling to get a good grasp of the concept. So here is my attempt to break it down in the business context.

Before categorising different types of collaboration (co-operations, partnerships, etc.), it is important to note that one needs to approach it with a clear understanding of what one needs. As the old poker saying goes, “if you don’t spot the fish at the table, you are probably the fish”. Fish, of course, refers to the weak players who are likely to be the sucker or the victim for other players at the poker table. Sure enough, one should not approach every meeting or coffee chat as a make or break business discussion (that would be horrible), but aimlessly approaching business relationship is not a good strategy either, perhaps much worse.

So here is how I categorise collaboration:

  1. Strong business deals
  2. Weak business deals
  3. Exchange of favours
  4. Building up rapport/relationship

Strong business deals

Strong business deals refer to something that is highly desirable by both parties. It can be any contractual relationship regardless of whether money is switched hands (though more likely than not). Well, these things are few and far between and almost always require a tremendous amount of time and effort from both parties to make it happen. Yes, this is what we all want but it is hard! This is what business is all about, finding the right partner and exchanging something that is truly valuable to both parties. As a result, it is highly unlikely that someone randomly approaches you on LinkedIn or other casual meetings would be bringing you a strong business deal. Nor should you try to approach new acquaintances with what you believe is a strong business deal (you will just look like a crook). Business deals, especially good ones, take time because it’s never just a mere exchange of goods, services and money. Relationships, situations and conditions dictate a lot of them. You’ll win some, you’ll lose some, and at the end of the day, you want to make advances. And that starts with a purpose, efforts and a whole of these things below.

Weak business deals

What’s more common is a weak business deal. There is still an exchange (so no one is cheating) but weak business deals refer to the ones where one party does not really want/need the deal but is being dragged into it. These are perhaps 80% of the business deals (yes, absolutely just my wild guess). There is usually a stronger player on hand driving the business deal through. This could be someone asking you to sponsor something (that you are not fully aligned with) or feature your business on their relatively weak /overpriced magazine/platform (essentially asking you to buy their marketing products/services). In Taiwan, quite often these are for the purpose of completing some arbitrary KPIs. These people usually approach you first and adopt various tactics to make you feel like you are the one who is taking the lead or taking advantage of them. Therefore as a golden rule of thumb, no sweet business deals will approach you aggressively. I don’t mean anyone who is proactive in the business world are cheats but this is more an appreciation of the difference between a buyer and a seller dynamics. You need to know where you are. Whenever in doubt, ask yourself, “why me?”. Why am I getting such a sweet deal? What efforts or asset have I (or will I have to) put in?

Exchange of favours

Yes, favours, favours and favours, something Taiwanese businesses are so in love with (and why GDP is such a bad economic indicator). Before I get into it, I need to bring it upfront that it is more than ok to exchange favours in the business context. For example, these can be cross-promotion/marketing efforts or signing of some MOUs that are only meaningful to both parties when it comes to promoting their position in the market. In fact, it is even ok to be charitable in the business context. There is the long game. Key is you need to know you are purposively doing it AND the other party is fully aware that you are doing it. Similar to weak business deals, what is happening more often than not is that the stronger negotiator is pushing the weaker counterpart into something that feels like a fair deal that is not. What’s worse, the great ones make you feel like you owe them something even when you are the one giving out all the favours whilst getting little or nothing back! This happens quite commonly when someone has a stronger brand or a better marketing executive. The key difference between weak business deal and exchange of favours is that exchange of favour is even more intangible and therefore much harder to judge. Most of all, remember it’s your own personal brand. If you are perceived as a “giver”, “spender” or essentially a sucker trying to do free work to please others, that’s what people will remember you and use you for.

Building up rapport/relationship

To me, this is what collaboration really should be. Collaborations should not be business deals (because business deals are business deals). It is easy to confuse market norms with social norms (Google more on this topic, there are lots of examples where people screw this up). If it’s business, we should deal with market norms and achieve what is best for the company (not yourself unless you own the entire company). If it’s about being nice to each other, we should deal with social norms which is completely fine. There is nothing wrong with building up rapport and relationship. It is only wrong when we mix them up with professional business relationship and etiquette.  Furthermore, even a casual coffee chat should have a purpose. This does not mean you are trying to extract things from others all the time but general emptiness is really bad. You don’t want to be guy who is known for just grabbing coffees with people for no reason. A coffee chat with absolutely no outcome is worse than not having one. Certainly the outcome can simply be a better relationship but rarely relationship builds simply by meeting.

Final words…

Be clear with what you want. Understand who is taking the initiative. Who is the buyer and who is the seller? What are you giving and what are you getting in return? Be purposeful and strong. Never lie to yourself that you can buy a relationship (no, people actually respect you less). The devil (or angel) is ALWAYS in the details. And finally, think about all the cliches MBA schools teach, synergies, making the pie bigger, win-win situation, etc. and see if they apply in this real world. A business deal is just an exchange under certain conditions – the question is if you control these conditions well enough.

Good luck!

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