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Collaboration Can't Be Theft

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We hear a lot about "collaboration," which usually leads to an endless, theoretical discussion of how service providers can work together if and when some unidentified prospect might wander down the street. Remember Cuba Gooding, who kept saying, "Show me the money!"

Or think of Thomas Harris's description of psychiatry: "It's like a blind man looking in a dark room for a black cat that isn't there."

More time is spent on theoretical and ideological collaboration than on tangible and discreet acquisition and delivery of business. It may be gratifying, but it's not very nourishing.

Collaborate on what?

When most people approach me to collaborate, they are really asking that I take money out of my pocket and put it in theirs. They want to work on a client engagement that I've created, or tap into a community that I've established, or sell products to lists that I've generated. And their services and products are usually inferior (and often invisible!) since they've been unsuccessful marketing them alone.

Some people do make a difference. They come along with a solid piece of business for which they need your help. A colleague and I engaged in a highly successful strategy project for a $1.5 billion organization on that basis—he with the cultural knowledge, context, and client relationship, and me with the credibility and methodology for the strategic process. Others have brought vast technological skills or financial acumen. I'm always willing to listen. Briefly.

Those are win/win/win.

But there are two equally vile alternatives: One is the lopsidedness of "let's work on your business and you can give me part of it," and the other is, "let's design a theoretical construct so that we can perfectly apply our methodologies despite what the imaginary prospect needs."

Collaboration means that 1 plus 1 must equal 64 or better. If it just equals 2, you have no better results than working alone, but a lot more overhead and costs. The whole has to be exponentially greater than the sum of the parts.

I see "boutique" firms assemble and disassemble with regularity, because they are looking for a structural solution to a process problem: the inability to market. Adding and combining firms, approaches, and bodies almost always provides heft to methodology and delivery, but not to business acquisition.

Don't claim more than you're due

I recently conducted a workshop called "0-300," intending to help people starting out in consulting to quickly reach $300,000. It was very popular, and I've had to schedule another. As part of my collaboration with participants, I offered complimentary help for 30 days following the session with questions about the program and its application.

One individual sent me an email last week demanding that I review his web site, find any spelling errors, comment on the design, and "give me whatever ideas you have to improve it." The letter was written as though I were his secretary, and I politely demurred. I told him that wasn't part of the deal, and that his letter wasn't addressed to a colleague, but to a subordinate.

His response: "I guess I found out that you never deliver more than you promise, and that's your level of customer service." Well, actually, it is. I don't feel obligated to deliver more than I promise, and for that matter, the customer isn't always right. Certainly this guy wasn't. He didn't want to collaborate, he wanted to dictate, to demand, and to overreach. He's not going to get to $25,000 with that attitude, never mind six figures. Clients have too many alternatives than to have to deal with the terminally self-absorbed.

What's the reality?

Collaboration is a wonderful tool for solo consultants and entrepreneurs in general, certainly in making rain. But it should be based on mutual respect and investment (and not merely financial investment). If one person has the clients, then can the other bring unique methodologies with proven track records? If one person has great approaches, can another provide fantastic delivery skills? What about leads, or referrals, or new ideas?

I don't believe people have the right to use wealth without creating it, or to benefit from happiness without creating it. I fell the same about collaboration.

You have to bring something to the table, tangible and real, that is in the other person's self-interest. Otherwise, you're just begging in the street. If you don't have that kind of wherewithal, and don't have the volition to create it, then maybe this isn't the business for you.

© Alan Weiss 2009 All rights reserved.

Alan Weiss, Ph.D. probably has the strongest independent consulting brand in the country, and maybe beyond. He is the author of 32 books appearing in 9 languages. His newest is The Global Consultant (with Omar Kahn) from Wiley. He runs the unique Million Dollar Consulting® College three times a year. He has won dozens of writing and consulting awards and is a member of the Professional Speaking Hall of Fame.® Contact him at, or his blog,

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