Organization Design Alignment

The Power of Collaboration

One important way that you can increase your organization's capacity to achieve its goals is through collaboration--within your organization, between yours and others within your company, and across corporate boundaries.

The Nature Of Things Today Is That They Are Very

Complexity has increased dramatically and significantly in just the past ten years, and its effects are compounded. Problems, opportunities for innovation, products, and solutions are so complex that they can no longer be solved, invented, or designed by one person working alone or by completing pieces separately and then integrating them later. The various parts or aspects of complex solutions must be developed in relationship to each other from the outset or else the pieces will not fit or work together, and why they won't work will not be readily apparent until later--and possibly when it's too late or too costly to solve the problem. It is frequently the failure to develop integrated solutions and the resulting need to fix or redesign them that creates or contributes to time-to-market problems, cost overruns, and field failure.

Interdependence Is The Universal Condition.

Managing interdependence requires that we be able to work cooperatively and in conjunction with others who have relevant and complimentary knowledge or skills to bring to bear on a particular problem, usually one in which the participants have a shared interest. This way of working is collaboration, and we must find ways to enable it if we want to leverage the ideas and creativity of many to address complex issues. It's worth noting that collaboration is as much an orientation or way of being as it is a way of working. "Collaborating" only when it serves our own interest does little to build the trust or solid relationships that are required for successful interdependent and collaborative initiatives. We need to understand interdependence as an ongoing condition that supports the needs of the parties over time, not just when it's convenient.

Collaboration Doesn't Happen By Accident. The capacity and structures that enable collaboration within and across organization boundaries must be designed into the infrastructure and culture of the company.

Most companies have been set up or evolved in ways that are more likely to promote and reward individual action rather than collaboration. Few corporate strategies can be successfully executed without collaborative activity. But the existing structure, rewards, and processes frequently inhibit collaboration, and employees perceive it to be to their disadvantage in terms of both formal and informal rewards and recognition. Steep hierarchies frequently require permission seeking while discouraging initiative taking, thus inhibiting collaborative behavior. Senior managers often fail to understand why employees don't, won't, or are unable to work more collaboratively, despite verbal encouragement to do so. If we remember that form follows function, not the other way around, then we can move to designing organizations that support necessary behaviors and interactions.

Extensive research with consistent results has revealed the structures and conditions that promote and enable successful collaboration:

  • Shared, significant, well-understood objectives, outcomes, or goals that none can accomplish alone
  • Access to shared spaces, tools, processes, and methods that promote interaction that produces synergistic, whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts creativity, innovation, and results
  • Environment that supports collaborative activities and behavior, including access to required resources; active sponsorship; culture, norms, values, and rewards that are congruent
  • Freedom to experiment without early limitations or constraints to creativity and the need to justify or commit prematurely to outcomes or solutions, i.e. the expectation and opportunity to take risks appropriate to the objective.
  • Collaborators who bring the right mix of competencies, skills, experiences for the opportunity and who can and will work in respectful and trusting ways

Some Thoughts On Teams and Three Reasons Why Teams Fail

First, the good news: Research has shown, and you would no doubt agree, that high-performance teams are one of the best structures for collaborative work. So if interdependency exists and collaboration is required, form a team right?? Well, not so fast: The paradox here is that even though teams may be the best structure for collaborative work, forming a team doesn't necessarily produce collaborative results.

Reason # 1: Overuse and underdifferentiation

The operative words here are high-performance. At one time, "team" and "collaboration" were virtually synonymous. But now that teams have become increasingly popular and prolific, teams get formed for almost any purpose--or worse yet, for no clear purpose--and it's become common to call almost any group or staff a "team."

Teams that are high performing and truly successful fit a certain description and embody specific characteristics. These definitions and characteristics have been widely and consistently researched, and clear links have been established between the characteristics of the team and the results they achieve. It's under these conditions that teams will achieve results that are consistent with true collaboration, a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts effect that produces an extraordinary innovation or outcome.

The Team Essentials Model depicts the ingredients of a successful team, the necessary but not sufficient foundation on which high-performance is built.

Without the characteristics and the results, "team" is just another generic, overused term that's lost its meaning. In fact, you could say it's given teams a bad name.

Reason # 2: The Team Ghetto and Other Structural Errors

As they have become the common and prescribed thing to do, teams get formed and introduced into structures and organizations that do not provide the conditions that are required for them to be successful. The existence of the team does not insure that collaboration will occur or that the team will achieve a desired result. They can't be "poofed" into existence (i.e. told, "now you're a team, go do the right thing"). No team will be empowered in a culture or environment that's disempowering. And even Rumplestilskin can't save a team without resources!

Inserting teams at the bottom of or randomly throughout an organization that's fundamentally a steep hierarchy is a recipe for the teams' failure or worse. We call this a Team Ghetto. Your teams need to have certain freedoms, opportunities, and areas of autonomy: to experiment and risk; to determine how they'll work together, interface with key stakeholders, make decisions, structure the project, and move forward; to be trusted that as a result of their collective competence and wisdom, synergy will occur. If they are expected, either explicitly by the management or sponsor group and/or implicitly by the organization's culture and norms, to seek permission or approval at every turn, then their creativity, energy, and impact will be limited, or extinguished. Just the amount of time it takes to run ideas or requests up through the multiple and parallel levels of a hierarchy to have a decision made by a staff group higher up, and then back down again creates endless opportunities for distortion and misunderstanding, in addition the wasted time and energy. (Please note: we're not talking here about the importance of keeping sponsors informed or freedom from accountability).

Reason # 3: The Mushroom Effect

Teams can produce magical results, and members may describe the experience of being part of an extraordinary team as magical, but the bottom line is that successful, high-performing teams don't happen by magic!

In order to create the essentials that enable a team to flourish, you must make an investment in its development. Initial startup as well as ongoing development activities are required. Our experience shows that for maximum effectiveness, these activities are best done in as carefully designed and facilitated event in which members interact with each other, begin working as a team and making key decisions about their project, and start building critical relationships right from the start. We can make sure that they get off to a good start; that they are focused and energized right from the beginning. All too often teams are not well launched, a costly error from which some teams never recover.

Successful teams regularly devote time to their maintenance by assessing their processes, effectiveness, and progress. They are honest with each other about what's working and not working, and they make real time modifications when necessary. They don't wait for a crisis or for someone else to tell them that there's a problem. These periodic check-ins ensure that the essential ingredient of trust continues to build and that members attend to basic group processes.

If What You Want And Need Is Increased Collaboration Within Your Organization And With Others, it's essential that you pay attention to and invest in an organization design, infrastructure, and culture that supports, encourages, and enables this way of working and that you also invest in the team and its development.

Additional Resources on the Power of Collaboration


Trust In Teams: And Why It Matters
Online Learning For Real World Experience
Workforce Collaboration
Developing Virtual and GDTs in Cyberspace
They Said It Couldn't Be Done
Doing Teams with Knowledge Workers
The "Peace Corps" Model of OD

Newsletters Issues:

Issue 1 - Virtual and Geographically Dispersed Teams
Issue 4 - Team Startup
Issue 5 - Trust In Teams--And Why It Matters
Issue 9 - Trends in Team Development - What to Do With Large Teams

CoastWise Consulting
Mountain View, CA 94040
Phone: (650) 969-3535
Fax: (650) 969-5533


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