Solve Complex Problems With Smarter Collaborations

Jan 16, 2017
13 Min Read
Solve Complex Problems With Smarter Collaborations

Solve Complex Problems With Smarter Collaborations


It certainly seems to make sense that collaborating can lead to better results, but it’s the sort of touchy-feely subject that many senior leaders don’t believe can lead to real bottom-line payoffs.

But new research shows that collaborating in the right way can boost revenues and profits and offer better solutions to customers, who in turn become more loyal. It can also lead to more innovation, and provides greater oversight and transparency that can reduce unethical or illegal conduct by individuals.

Heidi K. Gardner, a distinguished fellow and lecturer on law at Harvard Law School, says that she was familiar with the skepticism about collaboration, and even saw companies “suffering from collaboration overload.”

That’s when she decided to investigate.

Plunging into data, interviews and surveys, she says she was surprised by the results and found that collaboration in many cases “was even more positive than we thought.”

The key, however, is that in order for collaboration to work, it must be done in an intentional way and not just for “selfish reasons,” she says. Specifically, it must be “smart collaboration” that focuses on putting together the right people for the right reasons, she says.

“Smart collaboration relies on a real diagnosis of what problem can be eased – either complexity or scope or scale – and you have to be convinced of the importance of integrating different kinds of knowledge,” she says. “You’re not throwing a team against it because that’s what you always do or you’re just using a team as a way to dodge individual accountability.”

Many customers now seek out those firms that can offer solutions to more complex problems – such as with mergers and acquisitions – and those answers often lie in collaborative efforts, she says. Further, Gardner says customers often are willing to pay more for specialists who can collaborate because such teams can arrive at a more innovative, integrated solution.

In her new book, “Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos,” Gardner says that collaboration done the right way can work for any company, no matter its size.

“Sometimes people are doing collaboration mindlessly. There is justified cynicism about it,” she says. “But we’re finding that without a doubt it can work for anyone if it’s done right. Smart collaboration is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.”

After analyzing millions of data records, Gardner says her research reveals how to use collaboration to achieve bottom-line results. Among her suggestions:

  • Forget cross-selling. Many customers don’t like cross-selling, which they believe to be the aim of cross-functional teams. “It’s the professional equivalent of, ‘You want fries with that?’” she says. “If you’re pushing a selection of items at them, then it comes off looking selfish and money-grubbing. Collaboration then takes on a mechanical, selfish approach instead of trying to help the customer with what’s most vexing.”
  • Don’t go overboard. Collaboration doesn’t make sense in all situations, and customers don’t like collaborations that deliver a solution that only addresses 10% of the problem. “Sometimes they just want a fast, targeted and less expensive idea. A company may think: ‘I have a hammer, it must be a nail,’” she says. “The complaint is often that customers don’t feel they’re getting a reasoned perspective. You’ve got to offer a thoughtful, appropriate approach.”
  • Don’t make everyone collaborate. If someone on the team was hired for having a “lone wolf mentality,” then it might be very difficult for this person to transition to collaborative efforts.  “What’s this person’s track record? If that lone wolf mentality extends to the kind of work they want to be doing, then it might be very difficult to get them to change,” she says.
  • Set the stage. At McKinsey, where Gardner once worked, a leader is expected to launch each new project with a team briefing that outlines the client’s objectives, and how each person’s role fits into the bigger picture. She suggests companies develop a template for new projects or clients, then training partners and senior managers on how to use it. She also advises giving the system some teeth by withholding an expense code “until they actually conduct the project launch.”
  • Expect distrust. Despite the convincing data that collaboration can lead to big payoffs, some employees will resist it. When people are used to going it alone and being successful, they may not see that collaboration holds short-term gains for them. “Start small by letting people do real work together, not some fake project or working on a Christmas party together,” she says. “Try letting them work on a client pitch together.” The reason a client pitch is a good idea is because such “pre-client” interactions can help establish competencies, she says.

At the same time, it can be more difficult to overcome interpersonal distrust, such as one employee believing another worker will “steal my client” or “make me look like an ass” in front of a customer if they’re forced to collaborate, she says. At one firm where Gardner did a survey on collaboration, one employee responded: “I can’t depend on anyone. It’s every man for himself. They won’t have my back.” Notes Gardner: “This is clearly not fertile ground for collaboration.”

  • Look for hidden gems. Every company has one or more go-to people who can work with anyone and are seen as vital to getting work done. Because they’re tapped by nearly everyone to help with a variety of projects, these same people who are seen as seasoned collaborators can instead become overloaded bottlenecks. “These people typically have all the right intentions, but teams need help to be structured correctly,” she says.

That’s why leaders need to be on the lookout for the “up and comers” who are hungry for the opportunity to collaborate, she says. “Think about it: Do you still go to the same guru again and again? Then, you need to find the hidden gems and give them a chance. You could get enormous returns because they’re going to over-deliver because they’re so happy about the opportunity,” Gardner says.

  • Leaders are not the silver bullet. Yes, teams need direction and structure to ensure they collaborate efficiently and effectively, but leaders can’t insert themselves into every detail. “You need to learn to help teams flourish from the bottom up,” she says. “You must model the behavior of being consistently inclusive. Communicate and help your middle managers learn to guide the teams.”

Learn how to conquer a leading cause of collaboration failure, manual processes. Download the Process Improvement Playbook: Overcoming the Hurdles of Manual Processes in the Workplace.

Process Improvement Playbook


The Matrix

While many companies may agree that collaborative teams are important, that doesn’t mean they have a handle on ensuring they function properly. And without that proper guidance, there can be chaos as employees struggle to work with multiple bosses across different functions.

A Gallup survey finds that 84% of U.S. workers put in time on multiple teams every day and may report to various managers. Of those employees, 49% participate in multiple teams some days (known as “slightly matrixed” employees), while 18% are on multiple teams every day with different people, although they report to the same manager every day (they are known as “matrixed employees.”) Seventeen percent work on multiple teams every day with different people and different managers (“supermatrixed”).

Gallup says that in order for team goals to be reached, leaders need to ensure workers understand their roles and provide consistent, ongoing communication. Only a minority of supermatrixed workers agree with the statement that “I know what is expected of me at work,” compared with 60% of non-matrixed workers. Matrixed organizations, Gallup finds, often lack clarity about responsibilities and expectations, and it can be difficult to understand who reports to whom.

In addition, smaller teams can be more effective. Giving into demands that teams be more inclusive can mean a loss of focus and lead to dysfunction, experts say. Gallup finds that teams with 10 or fewer members keep workers more engaged. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says, “If I see more than two pizzas for lunch, the team is too big.”

Further, the bigger the team, the greater the chance for lower productivity and agility. Gallup reports that workers in the three matrixed categories are more likely than non-matrixed employees to be overloaded with emails and meetings. That can hamper everything from communications to decision making to organizational responsiveness, Gallup says.

Stanford University’s Daniel McFarland, a professor of sociology and organizational behavior, says that companies need to understand the importance of collaboration. Businesses can benefit, she says, from having employees involved with different teams at different times, as it helps them develop fresh ideas and perspectives and lets them develop new skills.

“At the beginning of a relationship, being the same is terrific, but that only lasts so long,” he says. “If you are too similar, there’s too much overlap” in capability, knowledge and contacts, which leads to turf wars and stale ideas.

Process Improvement Playbook - Overcoming Manual Processes in the Workplace

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