On Leadership and Collaboration

Collaborate

A 2009 IMD publication makes the observation that:

There is a growing tendency in business to recognize that pooling the ideas, resources, commitment and efforts of many is more effective than relying on the few best individuals.

The publication goes on to analyze the way collaboration was utilized at CERN – the European nuclear research center in Geneva – as a tool in exercising a different type of leadership and project management, resulting in world’s largest ever physics experiment over almost 20 years.

Facing and Confronting Challenges

The challenges faced by the leadership team at CERN were formidable. It required the engagement and coordination of work conducted by 169 research institutions and national agencies from 37 countries and 2,500 scientists over a period of almost 20 years.

Leading such an endeavour required a leadership style that encouraged collaboration and fostered respect and harmony across all participants and collaborators.

A  similar observation is made by William L. Waugh Jr. and Gregory Streib in a paper titled “Collaboration and Leadership for Effective Emergency Management.” The paper, analyzing the importance and the role played by collaboration in addressing natural and technological hazards and disasters as well as the consequences of terrorism, concludes this:

New leadership strategies are now required, such that they drive their power from effective strategies and the transformational power of a compelling vision, rather than from hierarchy, rank, or standard operating procedures.

The Power of Collaboration

The need to integrate collaboration as a key leadership attribute is now a common theme in many leadership and management articles, posts and publications. The justification for this approach is straight forward. Organizations, now more than ever, are facing complex and unpredictable competitive landscape, one that is filled with new, and global, aggressive competitors.

With this in mind, making the best utilization of the human assets of any organization can be best harnessed through an effective use of collaboration.

The effectiveness of this collaboration is dependent on the ability of corporate/ social / organizational leadership to actually make it happen.

Simplifying the Complex

The complexity associated with effective execution of collaborative effort cannot be overestimated. Not only is collaboration complex (when was  the last time you have been involved in a large-scale collaboration effort – where ‘large scale’ is in the 100′s or 1,000′s of people?) but the very meaning of what collaboration really is can be confusing as  it might get tangled up with concepts like coordination and cooperation.

In Let’s Stop Confusing Cooperation and Teamwork with Collaboration, Jesse Lyn Stoner suggests the following definitions:

Collaboration:

Working together to create something new in support of a shared vision. The key points are that is is not an individual effort, something new is created, and that the glue is the shared vision.

Coordination:

Sharing information and resources so that each party can accomplish their part in support of a mutual objective. It is about teamwork in implementation. Not creating something new.

Cooperation:

Important in networks where individuals exchange relevant information and resources in support of each other’s goals, rather than a shared goal. Something new may be achieved as a result, but it arises from the individual, not from a collective team effort.

Seeking the Greater Good

Rick Lash, in a 2012 article titled “The Collaboration Imperative“, and based on earlier studies by the Hays Group, makes the observation that while many organizations in recent years have restructured themselves into a flatter, less hierarchical matrix organization structure, this is yet to be complemented by a development of a leadership layer that can “subordinate their agenda, yield power and give up resources for the greater good”.

Leaders who are accustomed to top-down, command and control leadership style (the very style that was relevant in the organization in the past) find the collaborative approach foreign to their way of thinking and their attempts to lead collaboration are likely to result in failure.

Be Wise, Maximize

Collaboration is not without its possible pitfalls. A need to collaborate with a potentially large audience can easily lead to organizational paralysis. In addition, attempted collaboration can result in interpersonal conflicts and misunderstandings, resulting in on-going communication and decision-making difficulties.

While collaboration is still a challenging art, the way to improve the odds – à la Rick Lash – is by utilizing the following principles:

  1. Be clear about the destination
  2. develop mutual understanding
  3. know when to lead and when to follow
  4. set schedules and stick to them
  5. encourage information sharing

The Leader’s Toolbox

Ultimately, collaboration, as observed by Arthur T. Himmelman in “Collaboration for a Change“, is just one of the tools at the leader’s disposal.

Effective use of collaboration, alongside proper use of networking, coordinating, and cooperating, is a key to having a  fair go at achieving success.

So, what challenges have you had in using a collaborative technique with your team? How have you overcome some of these challenges? What would a more collaborative structure look like at your work and what steps could you take to achieve them? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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——————–
Shim Marom PMP, MSP, ICAgile ICP
Shim Marom is a Melbourne, Australia based Project Management Consultant
He blogs and engages in Public, Forums and Online Discussions
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4 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this information. Yes, the common complaint against collaboration is [the perception of a] lack of decisiveness. The leader needs to be able to be able to understand when to move from collaboration to decision.

    • Hi Mark, thanks for your comment. Casual observation and literature review would support (I think) the claim that collaboration is an upward trend and that those wishing to succeed but don’t have the inclination to support it are likely to remain behind. Having said that, collaboration cannot be used as an excuse for procrastination and herein lies the challenge for leaders and non-leaders where finding the balance will be the key for success.

      Thanks again, Shim.

  2. Good article. I can vouch for the ideas you write about in it because I co-led a collaborative, multi-stakeholder initiative involving hundreds of people, multiple organizations and crossing all sectors from business to government to non-profits. Many people confuse collaboration with soft skills, sometimes to the point of dismissing such efforts as kumbayah-feel-good endeavors. I can assure you and them there’s nothing soft about it. Pulling off a successful collaborative effort requires discipline, superb people, communication and negotiation skills, organizational skills, domain knowledge, and the ability to share leadership.

    • Thanks Jagoda. My span of control / leadership has never been as extensive as yours and even at the levels in which I operate the task of collaboration is far from being straight forward or simplistic. One of the reasons for collaboration being complex is because it is not a process but rather a state of mind, an attitude. Collaborating based on a 10 steps guide cannot work unless one has the required set of values enabling it in the first place.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      Shim.

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