Jul 25 2007

Collaboration is Hard, Part I

Collaboration is Hard, Part I

Every year when we do 360 reviews, a whole bunch of people at all levels in the organization have “collaboration” identified as a development item.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately and will do a two-part post on this.  So, first things first…what is collaboration and why is it so important?

Let’s start with the definition of collaboration from our friends at Wikipedia:

Collaboration is a process defined by the recursive interaction of knowledge and mutual learning between two or more people who are working together, in an intellectual endeavor, toward a common goal which is typically creative in nature. Collaboration does not necessarily require leadership and can even bring better results through decentralization and egalitarianism.

What does that mean in a business setting?  It means partnering with a colleague (either inside or outside of the company) on a project, and through the partnering, sharing knowledge that produces a better outcome than either party could produce on his or her own.  Interestingly, the last sentence of the definition implies that collaboration can happen across levels in an organization but is generally more effective when the parties who are collaborating are on somewhat equal footing.

Why is collaboration important?  There are probably a zillion reasons.  Let me take a stab at what I think are three important ones:

  1. It’s not about hard assets any more. In a knowledge economy/company, sharing information and learnings is critical.  And that’s what’s at the heart of the collaborative process.  Each person in the organization does a different job; even those who are in the same role have different experiences with their role and different interactions both internally and externally as a result.  A collaborative process that by definition involves learning drives the organization forward and to a better place.  An example…if you have a deep working knowledge of your product, and your counterpart in marketing has a deep working knowledge of public relations, collaborating on a PR strategy to launch the product’s latest feature means that you will learn more about public relations and your colleague will learn more about your product.  In the end, you both get smarter, and the collective intellect of your organization grows — so your company gains incremental advantage over the competition as a result.
  2. No man is an island. Most functions and business units are in some way interdependent.  Think back to the example of product and PR above.  Both parties learn through collaboration and make things better for the future.  Here’s the rub, though — the collaboration in that example is the only way to produce the right outcome.  So the prior point illustrates offense, but this one illustrates defense.  Failure to collaborate in this simple case would lead to a misguided PR launch strategy for the new product feature.  Either product would dictate the release strategy and text — missing some important subtleties about what reporters will/won’t pick up or without thinking through how different constituencies will react to the messaging — or PR would dictate the release strategy and timing — missing important but subtle points of competitive differentiation in the product features or botching a market-specific window for the announcement.
  3. Leverage is king. If the first point illustrates offense (collaboration moves the organization forward) and the second one illustrates defense (failure to collaborate suboptimizes the quality of results), this one illustrates productivity (perhaps a subset of offense).  Collaboration gives leverage, which in turn gives productivity.   Let’s not pick on our poor product and PR people this time, though.  Let’s think about one of the most difficult things to do, which is to hire good people.  As I wrote a few years ago in The Hiring Challenge, the three things to do when hiring (which are all hard) are defining the job properly, finding the time to do it right, and remembering that the process doesn’t stop on the person’s first day on the job.  So where does collaboration come in?  Once your company is big enough to have a good HR person or team, the collaborative approach to having them help you with recruiting is the best option.  Sure, you can “throw it over the wall” to HR — give them a job title and location and comp range and see what happens.  And you will get some candidates, some of which might be ok.  Or you can forget about HR and try to do it yourself and not have time to get it right.  Or you can collaborate, bring HR into the discussion about the need for the position, the skills required, and the fit with your organization, even write a job description with HR and discuss which companies or types of companies you want to see on candidates’ resumes — and voila!  HR can go off and do 10x the work at 10x the quality.  For a little more up-front effort than the “throw it over the wall” approach, you leveraged yourself tremendously through what can be a very time consuming process.

Although my examples are by nature from my own industry for the past 12+ years, it’s hard to think of too many organizations or industries where collaboration isn’t critical to success.  Even in companies like investment banks or strategy consulting firms, which traditionally are very hierarchical, command-and-control organizations filled with brilliant individual contributors, the most successful companies (think Goldman Sachs, McKinsey) are the ones that seem to foster more collaboration than others in the development of their people and the development of shared intellectual capital that helps drive the organization forward and ahead of its competition.

In Part II, I’ll answer the title question here…why is collaboration hard?  Stay tuned!