Collaboration Stalled? So Make It Smarter

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It’s no secret that in many organizations “teamwork” is more of a hopeful slogan than an actual practice.

Sure, many people talk a good game of teamwork. But for reasons ranging from personality conflicts to turf protection to simple lack of appropriate skills they don’t manage to translate the feel-good slogan into top performance.

Heidi K. Gardner and Ivan A. Matviak provide some excellent guidance in Smarter Collaboration: A New Approach to Breaking Down Barriers and Transforming Work.

Gardner, a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and former professor in the Harvard Business School, was previously a McKinsey consultant and Fulbright Fellow. Matviak, a senior executive in the global financial services and tech sectors, was previously chair of multiple software companies, an adviser to private equity firms, and a Bain consultant.

In this context, we might look at smarter collaboration as a hyper-intentional way of working with others in focusing on problems and being ingeniously resourceful in solving them.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Most everyone agrees that collaboration is generally a good thing. How do you define “smarter” collaboration and, in a nutshell, what’s the business case and talent case for smarter collaboration?

Heidi Gardner: Today’s problems are so complex and multi-faceted (think about ESG, digital transformation, or economic and political uncertainty) that companies need to bring in people with a range of different expertise and viewpoints to tackle them. Breaking down silos and getting people to work across specialties is what we call “smarter collaboration.”

Firms that collaborate smarter consistently generate higher revenues and profits, boost innovation, strengthen client relationships, and attract and retain better talent.

Let’s take innovation as an example. Research into patent applications over the last 20 years clearly shows that innovation happens increasingly among teams working together on a project. The average number of inventors per patent has grown steadily, almost linearly, from 1976 through 2020.

Breakthrough ideas increasingly require collaboration. But it’s not just more people that matters. It’s having people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise that really drives innovation.

And looking at talent—smarter collaboration helps boost engagement because it gives people the opportunity to learn and grow. Our surveys of thousands of team members consistently show that they value collaboration in part because it provides them content knowledge, such as market intelligence and a broader understanding of their customer’s business.

Working closely with colleagues also enhances their skills in areas such as problem-solving, leadership, and effective communication.

Duncan: Tell us a bit about the research that undergirds your views on collaboration.

Gardner: Our views on collaboration result from over a decade of teaching and research at Harvard University as well as our complementary professional experience. We have gained access to millions of data records and crunched these numbers in a rigorous, statistical way. This empirical approach helped us identify patterns in the relationship between collaboration and higher revenue and profit—as well as other strategic outcomes. Basically, firms that figured out how to collaborate across silos, building teams of experts with complementary expertise, gained a major competitive edge over those that did not.

I shared these findings in Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos—which became a Washington Post bestseller and was recognized by many organizations as the go-to resource on Smart Collaboration. This created many new opportunities for me, including client and research engagements in sectors like manufacturing, life sciences, and higher education.

Our perspectives on collaboration have also been greatly informed by Ivan’s career. His experience working around the world and across several industries—for example, as president of a software company, in executive roles at a major bank, as a consultant at Bain & Company, and as an adviser to private equity firms—added new dimensions to the research and ideas in Smarter Collaboration. His real-world insight was particularly helpful in crafting pragmatic how-tos for people to practice and encourage better collaboration in their organizations.

Duncan: What have you found to be the keys to successful blending of cultures and operational practices in mergers and acquisitions?

Ivan A. Matviak: One key is making sure you do enough homework during the due diligence phase of M&A transactions. Most companies still focus primarily on financial, operational, and legal aspects of the deal. But they should also examine how their talent will collaborate across legacy companies once combined. This means (1) assessing your company’s “organizational health” (including its ability to help new joiners collaborate quickly and integrate well); (2) conducting due diligence on the target company; and (3) building internal support—both for the transaction itself and an associated integration plan to get people collaborating across legacy companies.

The consequences of not doing this kind of due diligence are dire. Take the failed AT&T-Time Warner merger as an example. As highlighted in a recent New York Times article, not only were the two company cultures very different, but few efforts were made to join up these cultures for the success of the new company. Any goodwill quickly dissipated. As the article reported, “In the eyes of former Time Warner executives, a vibrant culture of creative energy and success nurtured over decades was destroyed in months.”

Other keys to the successful integration of two companies are elevating and advancing those employees who excel at collaboration. This includes naming people to key positions in the combined company well before the merger takes place. Lastly, getting enough people to collaborate deeply and broadly—across the legacy companies—within the first year is crucial.

By the time the deal is closed, you should already have a set of initiatives on the drawing board that are designed to advance your strategic goals through enhanced collaboration. Each initiative needs a clear, quantifiable outcome that is linked to core employees’ performance appraisal, and leaders need to provide resources and keep people motivated to make sure those outcomes stay high priority.

Duncan: What can leaders do to ensure that their organizations are appropriately collaboration-ready in times of crisis?

Matviak: Some pressure is inevitable. So how do you prepare yourself and your teams to handle that pressure when it comes, allowing you to collaborate effectively when you most need to? The first step is to understand your behavioral tendencies. People under pressure tend to revert to their central tendencies. With pressure increasing, those tendencies typically become self-reinforcing. For example, a person who’s usually on the cautious side becomes paralyzed to take any risk—wanting only to play things extremely safe.

Reflect on your go-to reactions in a crisis and how they’ve shown up in the past when you’ve been under pressure. With these patterns in mind, you’ll be more alert to the kinds of reactions on your part that could unintentionally undermine collaboration. We also recommend encouraging your team members to do the same, discussing these differences, and making a plan for how your cross-silo work will play out in a crisis.

Another strategy for maintaining collaboration during times of stress is to make sure you are not the problem. From getting enough sleep to coaching colleagues that are mishandling collective pressures, you can create a context for preventing (or at least better handling) difficult situations. And when disaster does strike, how do you handle it? Are you always raising the alarm and sending people running? Or do you consider what you can control versus what you can’t, and at least start to develop an action plan before communicating the issue?

Duncan: You write about “overcommitted” organizations. What are the tell-tale signs of overcommitment, and what role does collaboration play in fixing the problem?

Gardner: A big mistake many people make is thinking that if collaboration is good, then more must be better. Wrong! Unfettered collaboration often leads to people—and usually essential people—becoming stretched too thin across too many teams. When leaders lack the big picture and allow their teams to get overcommitted—which is not smart collaboration—a whole series of unintended consequences typically unfolds.

For example, because people are tired and over-worked, they lack the spark that comes from batting around ideas and building off each other in real time The team also incurs too many coordination costs, such as constantly needing to bring people up to speed on what’s happening. And unless you carefully plan and negotiate your contribution on each team, you may end up doing repetitive work on areas where you are already the expert instead of supporting your own development and advancing your career.

The smartest form of collaboration keeps overcommitment from happening in the first place. It means that leaders have a good sense of how many projects their team members are working on, and they keep this to a reasonable number. They talk about everyone’s competing priorities early on so potential issues can be identified and avoided through creative solutions. And they foster an environment of trust and familiarity among teammates, allowing them to better coordinate throughout the project and raise the alarm if they are stretched too thin.



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