The mind works in mysterious ways. Or so we have always been told. Actually it simply works separately from our physical experience, so it ends up being more of a spin doctor for our conditioned-response selves. While we like to think it presents, through consciousness, complete thoughts or integrated ideas, the mind actually only works in data bytes. Bits and pieces of ideas, thoughts and perceptions can linger independently in the brain, unconnected, until an event or comment triggers a connective stimulus. What this means is that the mystery is quite specifically: Why did it put those bytes together? So why am I talking about this in a foodservice industry magazine?

Karen-MalodyKaren MalodyIn a Society for Foodservice Management (SFM) webinar earlier this summer, when asked how to connect the dots for operators amongst the multiple issues of sustainability, one speaker used the word co-dependency. Since that word typically describes dysfunctional or damaging relationships that do not benefit either participant, my previous career as a psychiatric social worker caused my ears to perk up like the dog in those vintage RCA ads. I recalled another FE&S article from 2007, "Foodservice Collaboration and Collective Intelligence." So, in an instant, I had leapt from sustainability to co-dependency to collaboration. But there was yet one more byte to process.

Achieving Optimal Results

A thought has remained with me since attending FE&S' Dealer of the Year and Industry Awards Gala this past May. As I sat listening to the award recipients' speeches, I was moved by the integrity, work ethic and generosity of the award winners — and by extension to those industry professionals from whence they arose.

At this point, and not before, all these disparate bytes congealed, and I asked myself: Why do collaborative efforts not always achieve optimal results at a greater rate than individual efforts? I've spoken to many foodservice professionals who have wondered this after a project.

What causes participants in a collaboratively constructed project to end with all or some participants on the team feeling less than satisfied with the results? Were they merely co-dependent for the life of the project? Is there some quality of teamwork that must be sustained in order for collaboration to truly be all that these winners embody?

David Campbell, in his 2011 Harvard Business Review article, explains not only the difference between team work and collaboration, but why collaboration often fails, despite the best efforts and initial intentions of the participants. First, he says, teams are made up of individuals chosen by a leader or manager to work toward a common goal. On the other hand, collaborators can be strangers, or even competitors. "Unlike a customer-supplier relationship, collaborators cannot walk away from each other when they disagree," says Campbell. They are closely tied together through shared risks even if their goals are not perfectly aligned. And, in some cases, there can be competing goals, which can be hard to resolve. Also, the shared goal for a particular project is usually only a small part of their other responsibilities. Unlike a team, collaborators cannot rely on a leader to resolve differences.

So, is collaboration a good idea that simply doesn't work any better than any other approach? Can an industry with so many wonderful, generous people of integrity and skill be doomed to substandard achievement — I won't say failure — when collaborative efforts are employed?

My knee jerk response is no, we are not doomed. But then the ghost of accounts receivable demands that we ask, "Are you sure?" At the risk of sounding like a footnote in The Art of War, my answer is we must strive to master selflessness. And sustain it above all else for the life of the project.

This is not always when, without meaning to, we can so easily slip into a mode of protecting our own self-interests by playing a game of "What if..."

  • What if the client wants something that is not a part of our buying group?
  • What if a client wants my help as a consultant but I know someone else is better suited?
  • What if I bring in another collaborative consultant and then have to share the project fee?
  • What if my brokerage in Denver won't get any financial credit if I work on a project in New York City?
  • What if, as a distributor, I believe a client's needs would be best served with something contrary to what the designer has specified?

First and foremost, we have to maintain our own personal and professional integrity at all times. I do not mean we should all "try harder" or "really mean it" or "abide by laws and ethical guidelines." I mean that collaboration demands we leave our personal values, beliefs, ethics and fears outside the client's door. We need to forge a set of values, beliefs, ethics and hopes that we project ahead of ourselves that not only benefits the client but also motivates each of us to do the right thing for the sake of the project and our partners in collaboration. If we are unable to do this we end up like sports teams I often hear my husband ranting about, the ones that buy lots of great players but can't win. The same applies in the foodservice community. We can seemingly assemble the best players but if they aren't genuinely collaborative in their efforts to "win the game," all the talent in the world doesn't necessarily help a project.

We, the individual members of the foodservice community — the operators, consultants, dealers, reps, factories and service agents — are a family in the truest sense of the word. We are not co-dependent, because I make the assumption no one is trying to consciously or unconsciously harm anyone else by engaging in passive-aggressive or manipulative behavior. However, as collaborators, we are dependent on each other to exercise strong, defensible, and cooperative ethics if we are to benefit the customer/client and the industry.

Those sitting at the FE&S tables that evening and every evening like it are a testament to the fact it can be done. And more importantly, it is not random or spotty. When truly collaborative behavior happens it is admired and recognized and rewarded. It is a methodology, a state of that mystery mind that we must continue to pursue, study and implement.