Book Review: Collaboration - How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results

January 22, 2010

As our organization has migrated to Agile/Scrum development, the subject of collaboration has become more important for us to understand. Equally important, we are part of a larger, geographically-dispersed organization that is taking more aggressive action at operating as a single unit versus each business unit operating as a separate, independent entity.

The challenge is to realize gains in productivity and efficiencies while avoiding negative impacts. I happened upon the book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results by Morten T. Hansen (© 2009 by Morten T. Hansen), and naturally enough I was intrigued enough by the topic to purchase the book.

The book really focused on enterprise-level collaboration, with little to offer at the team level. I did find the points about enterprise-level collaboration as important, since this is an area where significant costs can be incurred, with little to no gain if done poorly.

Collaborate with Purpose
Understanding when it is appropriate and useful to collaborate is vital, and Hansen points out three opportunities that you should be targeting to improve through effective collaboration:

Better Innovation. This is achieved when people from different areas come together to create new ideas through their interactions.

Better Sales. Increased sales can be achieved by implementing cross-selling as a collaborative exercise where different organizational units cross so that one unit can sell its products to another unit’s customers.

Better Operations. Various options exist to improve operations, such as centralizing certain functions, passing along advice (best practices), or re-using existing resources.

Hansen also warns about the danger of over-collaborating, where the act of sharing information and ideas can lead to more time spent travelling and less time getting work done. In day-to-day practice there will be a question facing people: To collaborate or not to collaborate? The issue confronting them will be to do their own work and not collaborate, or to take time to help others and not get their work done.

The obvious answer here is to make sure that the priorities are known, that way those who are faced with this decision will understand the trade-off that they are making, and ideally they will be aligning their decision with the priorities of your organization.

Being Productive in a Collaborative Environment
The above relates to another important point that Hansen makes, and that is in order to achieve a highly productive environment, you need the ability to focus your attention on getting work done while leveraging the collective skills of the organization through effective collaboration. This requires that people be able to work in two dimensions. The problem is that people may not be able to, or will need coaching in order to reach this level. Hansen categorized people as Butterflies and Lone Stars.

Buttterflies are those who work well across the company, but fail to do well in their own jobs.

Lone Stars are those who deliver on their own jobs, maximizing their individual performance, but running counter to collaborative, teamwork behaviors.

Being productive isn’t automatically achieved simply by putting people together, ether. If you want to be a collaborative leader, do not make the mistake of measuring only team output – individual accountability remains a vital component! I wrote about this in my post Accountability and Teamwork: Is Everyone Pulling Their Weight?

Create a Unifying Goal
While the concept of unifying people is achieved through the establishment of a common, motivating goal is common, I really liked the example that Hansen used to drive the point home. I wrote about this in my post One Key to Successful Collaboration: A Unifying Goal.

If you want to gain more insight into the art of collaboration, I highly recommend the book.