Blog 1: The Art of Collaboration: A Collabyrinth?

The art of collaboration continues to fascinate both practitioners and researchers.

In large projects, the complexity of working in multicultural, multidisciplinary and multistakeholder partnerships can hardly be underestimated.

How to collaborate effectively and efficiently ? collaboration-1-laborynth

In three blogs I will introduce some critical success factors as well as as few frameworks of reference that can help guide the way.

In this first blog, collaboration is analyzed as a voyage by looking at the ancient art of creating labyrinths and mazes.

This discussion is inspired on the work on cross-cultural dynamics in large-scale projects by my dear friend and ex-colleague Karen Smits (http:/ She has adopted the “collabyrinth” in her analysis of colloborative efforts in working on the Panama canal expansion (contact her for inspiring examples!).

She refers to shaping collaborations as finding your way in an unknown structure of paths in order to reach your goal: The Collabyrinth.

Why a labyrinth?

The labyrinth makes an interesting metaphor for multistakeholder dynamics as it has always been assigned magical qualities.

The first labyrinths we know of were created by the Greeks, Celts and Egyptians followed by the Romans and Etruscans. They are spiritual (outdoor) locations. A labyrinth is designed as a man-made “puzzle” that needs to be reflected upon and resolved in order to reach a “treasure” we desire.

As of the middle ages, labyrinths are constructed with mosaics or stones and placed in church floors. In contrast to the later “maze” (see description below) the early labyrinth has only one path. This is the “road of wonder” that leads to treasure. Walking this path tends to hold unexpected surprises (people you run into, a little house you may tumble upon) for the wanderer venturing out on it.

Thus, in a labyrinth it is as much about the journey as it is about reaching your destination. It is like a mini-pilgrimage really, hence the spiritual connotations.

And a Maze?

In a maze, in contrast, the amusement is found in losing your way in a network of paths. It’s a challenge to your capabilities and teamwork. We start to come across mazes in the middle ages. Rather than enjoying the journey, you are meant to lose your way. Mazes are found in formal gardens and are no longer the privilege of church builders. Rather than an individual journey of meditation, the maze offers challenges that must be overcome in a group. Like the haunted house on the annual fair, amusement and a little horror may be combined. In the end, it’s a bonding experience with a prize to be won.

Well..I guess it’s not so hard to see the parallel with how some teams manage their collaborative projects. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

First lesson to be learned, whether you are in a maze or a labyrinth, during the voyage you are embarking on with your collaborative partner (s), effective coordination and communication are key. You need to lay out the groundrules to make the process of cooperation run smoothly. If you would only focus on goal attainment and let the planning run havoc you may never get there.

Want to know more?

Read Karen’s book and…of course… be sure to read my next blog.