True Collaboration Yields Better Results, But Success Is Not Guaranteed

collaborationOne thing I wrestle with as a CEO is how much to encourage collaboration within our firm. Collaboration is inherently good, right? “None of us is as smart as all of us,” Ken Blanchard has said. Together we can do great things.

Research supports the benefits of collaboration—from improving productivity to boosting morale to sparking innovation. One study suggests that people are motivated simply by feeling like part of a group that is working together.

As any experienced CEO knows, however, collaboration for its own sake doesn’t always work. People often get “voluntold” to partner on projects that are ill-defined, poorly resourced, or poorly managed. If the group being asked to collaborate is far-flung, cross-functional, multicultural, multigenerational, or just generally unfamiliar with each other, the challenges can increase. There can be such a thing as poor collaboration.

Conversely, there is “smart collaboration,” which is the title of one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, by Harvard Law School’s Heidi K. Gardner. Rather than assuming that collaboration is inherently good, Gardner looks at the data and illustrates ways in which collaboration can have clear benefits for organizations. (She focuses on professional service firms.)

The proof is in what collaboration does for the bottom line, she writes in Smart Collaboration. “Collaboration is a means toward achieving the penultimate goal of solving complex, interesting problems—and the ultimate goal of giving firms a strategic, sustainable, and profitable platform.”

The benefits may not always be immediate, she notes. Collaboration requires an initial leap of faith from participants and it can be months or years until benefits outweigh costs.

“Technology is often seen as the great enabler for collaborative work, but let’s not forget that workplace technologies are still evolving.”

A Foundation for Collaboration

Good collaboration, then, requires fundamental best practices:

Make success interdependent. A key factor in the success of collaborative endeavors, says a McKinsey report, is to make sure that goals are set which “no individual function or business could meet on its own.” Collaborators don’t need to be a unified team around a single goal, but their efforts should be beneficial to all parties.

Keep it simple. Ensuring the success of collaboration, particularly across diverse groups, requires a “radical simplicity,” according to McKinsey. As I noted in a recent article, we are in an era of accelerating change, which adds to the inherent complexity of group work. Simple goals with clearly articulated steps and stages increase the likelihood that collaborations will work.

Underscore the long-term benefits. Anticipate the bumps in the road and make sure participants understand that collaborating is a process that requires dedication and patience. There will be skeptics, especially those who favor more of a DIY culture. Gardner points out in her book that even so-called do-it-yourselfers are often, in reality, seasoned collaborators who have established strong, strategic partnerships with a few key clients or colleagues to get what they want.

Allow time for trust. There is no collaboration without trust, but trust doesn’t happen overnight. Recognize the time that needs to be built into collaborations – for example, for people to get familiar with each other or to get comfortable with the parameters of a new project.

See technology as an enabler or inhibitor. Technology is often seen as the great enabler for collaborative work, but let’s not forget that workplace technologies are still evolving. “It’s taken until recently for technologies to restore the level of collaborative teamwork that colleagues previously enjoyed when everyone was in a single office together, working on papers around a conference table or clustering at whiteboards,” writes PwC’s Vicki Huff Eckert. Part of the collaboration that needs to happen, she notes, is between humans and the technology itself.

So let’s work together and collaborate. But let’s think about it before we get started.

Andrew P. Chastain is president and CEO of WittKieffer, a global executive search firm dedicated exclusively to organizations that improve quality of life in health care, education, the life sciences and the not-for-profit sector. He is responsible for charting the firm’s strategic trajectory while ensuring WittKieffer’s industry-specialized consultants deliver solutions across the leadership continuum – experienced, emerging and interim – that build long-term partnerships and successful outcomes. Andrew brings over 20 years of leadership experience to the firm and continues to play a key role in select, high-profile search assignments. He is an active member of the American College of Healthcare Executives and serves on the Xavier University Graduate Program in Health Administration’s Advisory Board while also acting as a frequent speaker and contributor.