As the NASA Perseverance was preparing for take-off in July, I was doing my best to stealthily sneak out of my boss’ meeting to watch its ascent into history on its way of having a ‘Wright Brothers Moment’ on Mars. The rover will attempt to launch a sidekick helicopter that would mark the first powered flight on another planet, changing the trajectory, figuratively and literally, of deep-space exploration forever.
Collaboration holds the key to combine, improve and scale knowledge that gets us to new highs as Perseverance and its little partners aim to. It’s also the way out of the lowest lows of a global crisis. It’s not a new lesson, but shared success is still a moonshot thought for companies.
There are few images more iconic to human ingenuity, innovation and celebration of collaboration than the 1903 Wright Flyer in the air. Perhaps not until another flyer in 1969, the Apollo 11, and its Lunar Module set off for the moon did a rival emerge. Coincidentally, echoing the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk, aboard Apollo 11 was another aeronautical pioneer from Ohio, Neil Armstrong. It turns out, the first man to walk on the moon had a piece of fabric along with a piece of wood from the left propeller from the original Wright Flyer in his pocket as he took those fateful steps proclaiming a giant leap for us all.
Flight evokes such a hopeful reaction from humanity because it shows that what seems impossible can indeed be done, but only together. The incredible imagery of space launches is always accompanied by footage of global command center teams working together, launchpad engineers and the astronauts readying together and followed by all cheering and celebrating, together.
This isn’t just for show; NASA’s ‘interface management model’ approach, and its resounding success, has long hinged on collaboration. Its every team has clear and common goals, both individually and for the mission. These may differ but never diverge, nor can they ever be siloed. Every node is hyper-focused on doing their thing very well, but also always keenly aware how their piece fits within the overall puzzle everyone is trying to solve together.
And while some contributions remained hidden for too long—like those of key figures as NASA’s Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, or Apollo 11’s Margaret Hamilton—the impacts of their selfless, and at times unduly faceless, collaboration is exemplary of the varied thinking, skills and insights needed to solve our most difficult challenges.
This is no truer than in the age of Covid-19. The sheer breadth in scope, deep complexity and turbo-charged timeframes of this global crisis once again show that it could only be tackled by teams from disparate domains working together across disciplinary, functional and organizational limitations.
And so, we did. Together.
From vaccines to treatment research, PPE to ventilators innovation, contact tracing to supply chain agility, companies across industries have taken on the challenge. New public-private partnerships were formed, outdated ones rethought, and impactful ones expanded. We’ve seen every company become a health company; with doctors working with government leaders, nurses working with supply-chain managers, infectious-disease experts working with CEOs to better humanity’s response.
Businesses on the front line of the crisis worked to break down all types of silos and prioritize harnessing diverse ideas, people and resources for the less visible but no less important Wright Brothers moments needed to tame the pandemic across the world. As we work to emerge into the never normal together, let’s take that lesson, turn that collaboration inward and scale it. Time to walk the walk in your own hallways, however virtual they may be.
The pandemic has already accelerated our ability to collaborate virtually, showing that innovation can happen anywhere, a fear shared and faced by many pre-Covid. This is clear in the disruption of the ‘lifeline of humanity,’ which broke down digital barriers in our global supply chains to aid in the global response. This expanded, or created altogether new, collaborative architectures in food supply, consumer goods, and retail simply because by then no other options remained. While sudden, this digital transformation pushed industry leaders to collaborate, expand resilience and focus on customer-centricity as the way forward.
It’s unfortunate that it may have needed this drastic shock to the system. Accenture recently released a report finding that many companies were not collaborating on digital initiatives internally pre-pandemic, with as many as 75% of executives indicating that their departments compete rather than collaborate. The study, which included a survey of over 1,500 senior executives, points to trends and issues that the Covid-19 crisis and economic downturn only exacerbated.
The research highlights that the lingering issue of internal competition and self-service has bloated into a systemic one, continuing to cost companies time and treasure via redundant investments or strategies. For example, in our study we found that by digitizing functions in a vacuum, costs increased significantly while slashing expected annual revenue growth from more than 11% to only an extra 6% on average. Moreover, a staggering 64% of companies aren’t seeing their digital investments boost revenue growth at all.
That’s not how you get a plane off the ground, let alone sustain momentum amid a crisis. Even industries and companies viewed as stable and durable for the long run have been adversely affected by a lack of cohesiveness. Shared success is the way forward, because even without the added challenges brought on by a global crisis, none of us can afford a lack of collaboration within our own enterprise. Those percents add up, not just as unrealized growth, but maybe even as the fiscal lifeline needed to weather this storm.
As much as you may want to outmaneuver uncertainty all by yourself, it’s clear by now you can’t. You can, however, out-collaborate through it and possibly even out of it. True leaders, and real leadership, means being the driving force that helps build cross-functional, cross-disciplinary knowledge into networks of innovation, diverse teams of passionate, skillful people working together, readying together and ultimately celebrating together when their ambitions take flight.
It’s not going to be easy, but go and find the Orville to your Wilbur, Aldrin to your Armstrong, Mary Jackson to your Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan or that little trailblazing helicopter to the Perseverance Mars Rover.
We are indeed all in this together, so let’s start working like it.