It is clear that collaboration is a necessity in navigating today’s complex work environments where ambiguity and change are constants.
What is not clear is how to make collaboration part of an organization’s culture and the default behavior pattern for leaders.
One possible solution comes from Morten T. Hansen’s 2009 book, Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid The Traps, Create Unity, And Reap Big Results.
Hansen has been studying collaboration since the 1990s and offers a clear model for thinking about and managing collaboration.
He makes it clear that collaboration is fundamental to successful strategic execution; he emphasizes that collaboration must be part of the overall vision in order for improved results to be sustained.
To be an effective collaborative leader, Hansen asserts that three elements are necessary: redefining success, involving others, and accountability.
Element 1: Redefining Success
Hansen suggests that the definition of success can no longer be about just achieving your personal or organizational functional goals. To be a collaborative leader, one must expand the definition of success to include both functional and cross-functional goals. By shifting our perspective on success, we set the stage for creating a collaborative culture capable of succeeding in complex ambiguous environments.
Yet, according to Hansen, it is not enough to set broad goals that cut across the organization. Leaders, he wrote, must also invite and support others to engage in the broader, organizational decision-making process.
Hanson offers a simple model he coined called T-Shaped Management as a way to think about the leader’s role in managing vertically—in their own job—and horizontally—in the cross-functional organization. I think this concept is especially important in the areas of sustainability and social responsibility where a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach need to be coupled with assertive individual action.
Element 2: Involving Others
Hansen’s research indicates that leaders who invite others into the decision-making process—leaders who are genuinely open to collaborative learning while remaining decisive and accountable—can make better decisions and reduce resistance to change. Opening up discussion and decision-making for debate, however, brings its own challenges, in particular managing individual accountability in a group setting.
Element 3: Accountability
Accountability means that leaders need to stop blaming others and assume responsibility for both successes and failures. Accountability is an important element in any setting; however, for collaboration to take place, accountability is essential.
Distributing accountability can open the door for dysfunctional social loafing or freeloading type behaviors. According to Hansen, collaborative leaders work to prevent this by modeling personal accountability and holding others accountable through identifying specific, individual goals and actions that align to the broader goals. They also integrate individual goals and actions into the collaborative process to ensure that the balance across individual and group focus is maintained while producing results.
Collaboration Isn’t Easy
The value of collaboration needs to be explicit and an ongoing practice in organizations; it needs to be modeled by key leaders. The question becomes: “Why don’t more organizations and leaders incorporate collaborative approaches into their work?”
Collaboration is not easy and there are traps that need to be overcome in order to be successful. It is not as simple as telling people to be collaborative—there are tensions involved and skills required in being successful at operating collaboratively and in creating a culture that embraces collaboration. Engaging the group raises tensions around self-esteem and power dynamics. The skills to be effective require one to be open, forthright, and empathetic as well as being an effective listener and inquirer. In addition, the system or culture must routinely reinforce these types of skills and balance tensions for collaboration to be effective.
Hansen emphasizes these challenges by describing four barriers to collaboration that involve motivation or ability issues:
- Not being open to influence, alternative views, or diversity of opinion,
- Not being forthright and freely sharing of information,
- Inability to coordinate people and information effectively, and
- Inability to transfer complicated knowledge across the collaborative network.
Hansen’s book is strong in describing a whole-system approach to a collaborative framework with tools for assessing collaborative efforts and ways of thinking about how to pinpoint ineffective efforts. The book, however, provides little information on how to implement the framework or make corrective changes in non-collaborative behavior.
Other resources will be needed from research and knowledge areas such as collaboration, shared leadership, coaching, and teamwork to create an action plan that helps implement a change effort.