Following on from my earlier post in March around leadership in collaborative working with external partners, I just read the following extract from HBS written by Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer looking at the same challenges with collaboration within a company.
Riddle: What ubiquitous structure of contemporary organizations around the world makes for the best of times at work — and the worst of times, too? Answer: Collaboration.
We have written here about our project collecting daily work dairies from over 200 people to understand the effect of everyday events inside organizations on employee inner work life — emotions, perceptions, and motivations. When we analyzed the events that occurred on the very best days people wrote about, and contrasted those events with the very worst days, a peculiar thing happened.
Collaboration — working with others on a given day — didn't function like other work events. Nearly all of the events on the best days were exact opposites of events on the worst days — like making progress versus suffering setbacks. The good days had a much higher percentage of "good" events, like progress, than "bad" events, like setbacks; the bad days were the reverse. But, oddly, collaboration was prominent on both best days and worst days at work. In fact, we found that, although collaboration happened on 53% of the very best days, it also happened on 43% of the very worst days. Interestingly, average days were somewhat less likely to involve collaboration (38%). What does this mean? Is working with other people both a really good thing, and a really bad thing?
Actually, yes. It all depends. Collaboration across departments or units of the same company will likely be a good thing only if managers set up the conditions for what Morten Hansen — citing Procter & Gamble's collaborative innovation as a prime example — calls "disciplined collaboration." This includes getting buy-in toward a common goal. In the companies we studied, when cross-unit collaboration went terribly wrong, it was usually because the groups were working at cross-purposes. In fact, we saw conditions that actually pitted departments against one another. Listen to the words of a finance manager in a large consumer products company, whose efforts to improve his business team's profit margins were repeatedly undercut by people in the sales department:
"I learned that pricing for one of our key accounts has already been confirmed to the customer, without any prior approval or review. [...] It turns out that the pricing offered is [so low that] we will be losing money on this account."
We saw this sort of thing happening repeatedly to the business teams of this company, because salespeople were rewarded only on total revenue, while the business teams were judged on profit. The General Manager and his team seemed not to realize that these disparate goals were a fundamental problem — both for the division's performance and for employee inner work life.
Collaboration within a team can be a double-edged sword, too. As Richard Hackman has described, leading teams effectively requires setting the right team structure and then coaching the team to develop good processes. In one high-tech company, leaders got both pieces wrong: an R&D team's structure was fuzzy because goals and roles were never clearly defined, and no one intervened as teammates began squabbling over who was doing what and why. The VP of R&D had blundered in setting up the team to develop a radically new printer-scanner: He failed to define clear project goals, and he let two senior mechanical engineers each believe that they were going to lead the mechanical design of the product. From Day 1, the two tussled over their divergent visions. To make matters worse, the team leader avoided the building conflict between the two. After a while, the electrical engineers on the team found it impossible to collaborate with any of the mechanical engineers. Progress ground to a halt, crippling innovation.
To maximize the upside and minimize the downside of collaboration, exemplary leaders not only explicitly encourage collaboration, but also ensure clear goals and roles up front, anticipate potential conflict, and intervene when it arises. At the best company we studied, one director made a point of publicly recognizing collaborative achievements within teams and across units, modeling collaboration himself, and connecting people across the organization. Collaboration flourished. Another director wanted to enlist help from a key rival in another division, but understood that the rival might feel threatened. Recognizing the potential for friction, he first brainstormed with his team different ways of approaching and working with the "competing" colleague. The cross-division partnership worked out, and the project exceeded expectations.
In this company, where leaders understood and managed the positive and negative potential of collaboration, norms of cooperation, coordination, and mutual respect operated at all levels, down to small teams. As a result, innovation steamed ahead — and people across the company had many more good days than bad days.
So much of the content rings true and so many lessons for all of us working collaboratively. I have found explicitly addressing these issues through facilitation genuinely enhances not just the work, but also the time to execution and positive and sustainable results.