Getting Collaboration Right

JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

In the July 2015, I wrote about Getting Collaboration Wrong. If you haven’t already read the article, you might want to read it first. It will help you understand the traps that leaders frequently fall into when they try to establish a cross-business collaboration. Luckily, Morten Hansen, in his book Collaboration, provides a solution to the collaboration traps.

Hansen names six collaboration barriers:

  • Collaborating in hostile territory
  • Overcollaborating
  • Overshooting the potential value
  • Underestimating the costs
  • Misdiagnosing the problem
  • Implementing the wrong solution

Each of these blocks can and frequently does derail an enterprise-wide collaboration. Hansen solution is “disciplined collaboration.” Disciplined collaboration has two parts: first, knowing when to collaborate and when not to, and second, help people learn how to collaborate and help them agree to collaborate when required.

He presents three basic steps to institute disciplined collaboration.
1.    Evaluate opportunities for collaboration
2.    Spot barriers to collaboration
3.    Tailor collaboration solutions

Let’s look at each of these steps more carefully.

Evaluate opportunities for collaboration
Consider a key question: Will you get better results if people across the enterprise collaborate or not? For example, if training and documentation work together to decide what information is going to be developed to best serve the needs of customers, will they produce better content, create happier customers, and save time and money? Would working together actually produce better results than working separately?

The reasons for collaboration should be quite concrete. You want to produce something truly innovative, something that hasn’t been done this way before, at least not in your organization. You want to create significant cost savings, savings that come with reusing content and translating it once. So ask yourself: Can I accomplish my goals without collaboration? If you think you can, collaboration is probably not the answer. If you know you cannot, then collaboration may provide the only means.

Spot barriers to collaboration
If you’re convinced that a collaborative project is a necessity to reach your goals, then consider carefully what may stand in the path to success. Think about the six barriers I’ve listed above, especially four of them: not-invented-here, hoarding, search, and transfer. Are any of these at work in the organizations you want to bring together? In helping training and documentation work together, I’ve often found that the “not-invented-here” barrier is formidable. Instructional designers and classroom trainers may not believe that technical writers have enough customer insight to develop information they can use in course materials. They might even believe there is a transfer barrier because they prefer to work with people they know well, in their own organization.

The managers of the training organization may even feel that improving the documentation may decrease their revenue opportunities. If customer can find the information they need, will they want to pay for training?

The documentation team may also be unwilling to work with people they don’t know well in the training organization. In fact, reaching out may be difficult to a team that has several introverts who find it difficult to reach out to others, especially the extraverted trainers. The potential for personality conflicts could be considerable.

The managers of the documentation organization may believe that it is just too difficult to get the attention of people in the training group. They seem to be too busy to meet with the writers.

All of these issues can make collaboration difficult, if not impossible. However, as a leader, you need to be absolutely certain that the barriers you think are in place actually are in place. Sometimes a more careful analysis may demonstrate that the barriers are not what you first thought.
Once you have uncovered the real barriers, and you still believe that collaboration is right, you need to find ways to succeed.

Tailor solutions to tear down the barriers
Hansen tells us that different barriers require different solutions. He talks about using three levers to overcome barriers: the unification level, the people lever, and the network lever.

The unification lever means developing a compelling story that will motivate people to support a collaborative effort. A compelling story might have compelling goals. For example, if training uses material developed by documentation in the training programs, they can reduce the development costs and decrease the time required to develop the training, making it more quickly available to customers while increasing the profit of the training group.

A compelling story should help people understand the value that is accepted from a strong collaborative effort. A leader needs to encourage people to understand that the goal of their joint effort will bring them more rewards than their individual efforts.

The people lever means helping the managers lead collaborative efforts effectively. Those leading a collaboration need to support their own direct reports and work across enterprise boundaries at the same time. If a manager is only focused on his or her own team and neglects the needs of the collaboration partners, the collaboration is likely to break down.

By establishing strong networks throughout the enterprise, a manager can use a network lever. Interpersonal networks are crucial to successful collaboration but have to be managed carefully. A manager needs to watch out that networking doesn’t take over from actually getting the work done.

Sometimes managers believe that their organizations are too decentralized to foster collaboration. If every group is its own profit center, how can they be encouraged to work together, across business lines?

Hansen believes that organizations can be both decentralized and collaborative. In the best of both worlds, individuals find opportunities to collaborate and are anxious to work with colleagues in other business units when that collaboration makes the most sense. Disciplined collaboration makes the difference by combining the benefits of both.

Ron Ricci, Vice President of Customer Experience Services at Cisco, presents the keynote address at the September 2015 Best Practices conference. In his book, The Collaboration Imperative, Ron his collaborator Carl Wiese interview Morten Hansen about disciplined collaboration. They ask Hansen why collaboration has become so important. He points out that globalization of corporations has made it essential that people can collaborate across geographic distances. Staff members have become increasingly specialized, meaning that the best solutions will arise across specializations. The move toward autonomous business units means that managers find little value in working across units, but that results in potentially high-value solutions that are overlooked.

Hansen, Morten. Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results, Harvard Business Review Press, 2009.
Ricci, Ron and Wiese, Carl, The Collaboration Imperative, Prentice-Hall.