One Key to Successful Collaboration: A Unifying Goal

July 17, 2009

In my last post Accountability and Teamwork: Is Everyone Pulling Their Weight? I noted that I recently read the book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results by Morten T. Hansen. This book is a great read, and not particularly long – I’ve certainly read much longer! But it is packed with great advice and insight on the subject of collaboration.

At my company we’ve been faced with driving performance from multiple teams across our organization. If you’ve ever been faced with this scenario, I’m sure that you have at least had the thought run through your head, “Let’s have teams compete against each other.”

I’ll confess to this thought. I’ve played a fair amount of sports in my day, and I always relished a challenge. Growing up, I would compete with a good friend of mine on the most trivial things. Sometimes we competed against ourselves, seeing if we could break our old record of passing a football back and forth (across his parent’s living room) without dropping it – or breaking anything.

While competition is a good thing, Morten’s book points out that you want to target competition outside of the company, not inside. Pitting people against each other from within your company will foster unhealthy behavior that will divert focus from where it should be, and that is collaborating with each other to beat the other companies that are your true competition.

A major component of unifying people, according to Morten – and with no disagreement from me – is to create a unifying goal. The great example cited in the book is one that is often used in management literature when talking about creating an exciting, motivating mission that people can be passionate about: The goal of landing a man on the moon.

In the book, Morten reports about an exchange between NASA head James Webb and President Kennedy. Webb had a goal of establishing preeminence in space. President Kennedy, however, wanted a very clear goal. Webb argued that “there is a wide public sentiment coming along in this country for preeminence in space.”

Kennedy’s response: “If you’re trying to prove preeminence, [landing a man on the moon] is the way to prove preeminence…”

Kennedy was right, his goal was clear and specific. It not only proved preeminence, and it guided other decisions that a vague goal like “establishing preeminence” would not. In fact, a goal like “establishing preeminence” would require further debate and scrutiny about projects because it lacked a concrete objective. “Landing a man on the moon” was specific enough that anything not related to that objective was clearly lower priority.

The “landing a man on the moon” goal created clarity, automatically prioritized many decisions, and unified everyone involved. It’s got me thinking more about the goals our organization needs, and I’ll make sure that I’ll never, ever, even entertain the thought of having internal teams compete against each other again!

If you haven’t read this book yet, I highly recommend it.

Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results by Morten T. Hansen.