Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Collaboration (Hansen): Part 1

This is a cross-post from my blog on the military Social Media tool milBook.

This will be the first part of an overview of the book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results © 2009 by Morten T. Hansen.

While there is usually an upside to collaboration in an organization, there are often traps that prevent collaboration from occurring. The organization cannot then realize these benefits. Here are a list of some of these traps:

Collaborating in Hostile Territory: Some organizations are not set up to collaborate, and collaboration projects soon hit a wall. It is no surprise that collaboration fails in in environments that are designed for the opposite practice- competition and independence.

Overcollaborating: There is also a tendency to overcollaborate. This manifests itself in too many meetings, and not enough results. Sometimes when leaders promote collaboration in their organizations, they get more than they bargained for; people often overdo it.

Overshooting the Potential Value: It is easy to get carried away by the belief that there are huge synergy benefits to be gained by collaborating, only to find out the benefits are actually quite small. Hansen quotes an analyst: "Synergy: big wind, loud thunder, no rain. It's great to talk about conceptually ... but at the end of the day it's minimal".

Underestimating the Costs: Often cost (and benefit) projections are based on incorrect assumptions. When it comes to collaboration, sometimes leaders hope things will go well but do not fully appreciate the costs of working across the organization and resolving conflict.

Misdiagnosing the Problem: Many leaders fall into the trap of misdiagnosing the reasons people don't collaborate. Leaders must understand which barriers to collaboration are at plan in their organization and which are not.

Implementing the Wrong Solution: The misdiagnosis trap is often followed by the wrong-solution trap. Many leaders assume that a solution- an IT system, an incentive system, a common goal - will promote collaboration in any circumstance. However, different barriers to collaboration require different solutions.

All these traps lead to bad collaboration- characterized by high friction and a poor focus on results. Leaders don't fall into these traps because they are not smart. Smart leaders fall into them because they don't have a framework that helps them clearly see the difference between good and bad collaboration.

The way to avoid these traps is this: Disciplined Collaboration can be summed up in one phrase: The leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required.

To accomplish disciplined collaboration, leaders follow these three steps:

1. Evaluate Opportunities for Collaboration: The key here is to determine the business value of collaboration, and whether this value outweighs the costs of collaboration. Leaders who pursue disciplined collaboration never lose sight of this dictum: collaboration is a means to an end, and that end is great performance. Leaders need to be rigorous in deciding whether to prioritize collaboration, in which areas to collaborate (innovation, customers, costs), ands which specific projects to pursue.

2. Spot Barriers to Collaboration: Once the decision is made to pursue collaboration, then the leader must answer the question "What are the barriers blocking people from collaborating well?" Disciplined collaboration targets these four barriers:
- The not-invented-here barrier (people are unwilling to reach out to others)
- The hoarding barrier (people are unwilling to provide help)
- The search barrier (people are not able to find what they are looking for)
- The transfer barrier (people are not able to work with people they don't know well)

3. Tailor Collaboration Solutions: When the barriers to collaboration are identified, a leader can now tailor solutions that overcome these barriers. Different barriers require different solutions. Motivational barriers require leaders pull levers to make people willing to collaborate while leaders pull ability levers to enable motivated people to collaborate across the organization. These levers fall into three general areas:
- Unification Lever - leaders craft compelling common goals, articulate the value of cross-organization teamwork, and send strong signals that lift people's sights beyond narrow interests and toward a common goal.
- People Lever - The solution is not to get people to necessarily to collaborate more, but instead to get the right people to collaborate on the right projects. Hansen uses the term "T-Shaped Management" to focus on those individuals that simultaneously focus on the performance of their unit (the vertical part of the T) and across boundaries (the horizontal part of the T). They are willing as well as able to collaborate when needed but disciplined enough to say no when it is wrong.
- Network Lever - This is where the leader build nimble interpersonal networks across the organization so individuals are more able to collaborate. Collaboration runs more on interpersonal networks and less through formal hierarchies. However, networks can get out of control, which is when people spend more time networking than getting things done. After all, the objective of disciplined collaboration is to engender great performance, and this great performance should enable the organization to achieve its goals.

Each of these steps will be the subject of subsequent posts.

Disciplined collaboration affords an opportunity for an organization to have performance from decentralized work and performance from collaborative work. This is opposed to the commonly held view that a collaborative enterprise is very centralized with information flows from the top of the pyramid to the bottom. Instead, disciplined collaboration maintains the benefit of decentralization - giving people the freedom to be entrepreneurs building something exceptional while being coordinated with the rest of the organization. Again, it is important for leaders to know when to conduct the collaboration projects that enable this, and when not to.

While Hansen's book deals with the business context for collaboration, there is much applicability to military organizations in these areas. Business value is sometimes hard to quantify in any organization, but with the military it can be much more subjective. The key here is that the leaders must understand what their organization's objectives are, and make sure to evaluate collaboration opportunities, identify barriers, and tailor solutions that best fit the group that they are responsible for. This is really much more of an art than a science, and requires discernment and a clear vision of the future.

There is a video of Hansen giving an overview of the book here.

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