Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Metaphor for Collaboration?

After reading a recent post over on the HBR blogs on getting collaboration right, I can’t help but think that the author was thinking of the children’s story about Goldliocks and the Three Bears when trying to define the proper way to approach collaboration. In the story, Goldilocks was walking in the forest when she came upon a house with no one home. She walks in and finds three bowls of porridge on the table. She was hungry, so she tasted the first bowl and found the porridge too hot. So she tasted from the second bowl, but found the porridge too cold. So she tasted from the third bowl, found the porridge just right, and ate it all up.

Then she was tired so she entered the living room and found three chairs. She sat in the first chair, but found it too big. So she sat in the second chair but found it too big as well. So she sat in the third chair and while it was just the right size, it broke into pieces when she sat down. Now very tired, she wanders up the stairs to find a bed for nap. She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard. So she lay in the second bed, but it was too soft. Finally she lays in the third bed, and it is just right, so she falls asleep.

Then the owners, three bears, who went out for a walk to let their porridge cool, return. They find that someone has been eating their porridge and sitting in their chairs. So they look around and go to the bedroom, where they find that someone has been sleeping in their beds and still is. Just then, Goldilocks wakes up, sees three bears, screams “Help!” and runs from the room, down the stairs, through the door, and into the forest, never to return.

Which is how most collaboration efforts go. First the participants, wary of each other and the proclaimed benefits of collaboration, under-collaborate (because the porridge is cold). Then, when a C-Suite executive puts his or her weight behind it, and everyone gets on board, they over-collaborate (because the porridge is hot). Neither produces results, and eventually collaboration is accepted as something that needs to be done regularly, but not all the time, and the participants start to balance between too little and too much (and the porridge is just right).

However, since the participants are not very good at collaboration, they get weary, so they decide they need to find a framework to manage the process. Everyone pitches in and they start by selecting something that is so overarching and overdefined that they never get beyond the process itself (because the chair is too big) and get nowhere for a while. They eventually agree that the process (which fills binders) is too much and ‘streamline’ it to key steps and tasks, but the process still takes up most of their time and collaboration results are few and far between (because the chair is still too big). Eventually, the team decides to lean the process, and strip out everything but a few key steps, but since the process was built by stripping down an ill-conceived process, it turns out to be too brittle and breaks (because the chair is now too small to support the weight).

Even wearier, the team finally realizes that it’s not the process that is important, but the desired results, and start to define goals for the process and accountability. Thinking they finally have it right, they get ambitious with goals, but since the team is still new at results-driven collaboration, they get overwhelmed (because the bed is too hard) and don’t meet their goals. So they tone down their initial expectations, and deliver results, but don’t get the kudos they were expecting (because the bed is now too soft) and work their way towards a delicate balance between over-collaborating and under-collaborating and setting goals that are too ambitious and goals that are not. Finally, they realize the importance of accountability and insure that, in the case of no agreement (in a timely fashion), someone has the authority to make a decision, settle into a groove and get comfortable (because the bed is just right).

But then they get some unexpected negative feedback, because an executive complains about the lack of quick results or a key design element that would have doubled the potential market size was overlooked because everyone was new at the process, get spooked, and run away screaming (because they woke up and saw that they may still have to confront bears), never to return to collaboration again.

Which is a shame because, if they could get collaboration right and maintain it over time, they’d see significant results.