Monday, April 6, 2009

Why is Collaboration so difficult?

Here's an email I received a while ago (the names have been changed!):

"This product is 'owned' by the Golden Egg Division run by Veruca Salt. As such I have no control over it, cannot make any decisions for it, cannot even use it. Certainly, I can start to work with Augustus Gloop on putting something together, but I know that whole Golden Egg group is very much pre-occupied with getting something off the ground re the new laying tool which they have been talking about for years now. So I do not expect much cooperation there. To me that means it is something of a non-starter, even if this suggestion was our best option.

The person who wrote this was not doing the wrong thing or being selfish or having bad turf wars. They are behaving exactly as their reward system dictates, as the culture established by their company dictates. They reason that there is no benefit to working with any other group unless it improves their own bottom line. After all this is what they are accountable for."

Does this sound familiar? I suspect it might. Is it any wonder why collaboration is so difficult in large organizations?

I'm not at all sure how I would go about incentivizing collaboration but I think my first step would be not to actively incentivize against it!

One thing that I have tried to do in the past is to task certain people with driving collaboration or rather brokering collaboration between groups. I still believe this approach is effective but now I also realise that it is much more effective when the people in the groups concerned are natural collaborators. You can take a individualist to water but you cannot get them to drown themselves!

It was Rachel Mooney, Head of Organisational Culture at Google, who reminded me of this at a presentation last year. Google takes enormous effort to hire the right people. She said that they expect 25% of managers' time to be spent on hiring. Google values potential over experience: "we hire people for what they will do with us and not for what they have done before". Interesting since this is the exact opposite of the widely held belief that "past performance is the best predictor of future success". It was also instructive to note how Google's highly structured and bureaucratic hiring process compared to their loose and free-flowing development process.

What else can you do to stimulate collaboration?

You can strengthen the focus on working in teams and consider Project Management training for all. Mind you, there's little point in offering project management training without having projects for folks to work on. One idea that I have tried to push is short-term secondments to projects. My reasoning is that we seem to be able to manage maternity cover for staff for periods of several months, why can we not use the same process to free up people to work for a few months on a project?

In the end I think that collaboration is like communication - even if it comes naturally to you, you still have to work hard at it ALL the time. It requires investment of time and energy, if only to remove the many barriers that block collaboration and make it easier for people to connect. My bottom line is that even if you hire the right people, you still have to work at it.

One final thought. Seth Godin reports that he has "been thinking a lot about issues of scale and units of measure". Many businesses that are in trouble, he says, are in trouble for a simple reason: "they're the wrong size." He goes on: "A newspaper that only had a few dozen employees would be doing great today. But they have hundreds or thousands of employees because that was an appropriate scale twenty years ago. When I started my first web company fifteen years ago, the idea that you could be successful with six or ten employees was crazy, but today many of the most successful companies have not many more than that."

So my question to myself and to you is: is there an appropriate scale for collaboration and if so what is it?

1 comment:

  1. Collaboration is made more difficult for many reasons. Large is difficult partly because bureaucracy rewards politics and amplifies weakness. Bad or non-existent management training is an issue. Traditional top down, bottle necking, silo hierarchies are the most important. Hiding projects in the middle of groups with daily process oriented people is another. Notice that these are all obstacles to innovation as well.