Why Collaboration is so Difficult

Last Updated Jun 16, 2009 7:29 AM EDT

Effective collaboration is to business performance what inaugural speeches are to the effectiveness of governments and presidents. Although both may promise big prizes, they are quickly overtaken by current realities, entrenched stakeholder positions and inadequate operational capabilities. For every Lincoln, there are likely to be many Carters, Bushes and Clintons.

Two years ago, for example, I helped a client identify their priorities for action and development. The most important issue was to resolve the low productivity of certain sales teams.

A month ago I was back at the same client. What do you think was their biggest issue?

Of course, it was the same issue of sales team productivity.

The reason that the issue still remained was not because effective programme management techniques had not been used, or because accountabilities had not been set, but because the differences in opinion between the relevant executive directors had not been resolved. Consequently the cross-functional project team was not able to work effectively.

Collaboration is hard and I believe it is the biggest cause of project failure and failure to deliver intended results. It first requires top-down commitment. But, even then, good intentions are not enough. It also demands excellence in communication, relationship-building and other unglamorous management techniques.

To make it work you are likely to need to overcome diversity in personal objectives and aspirations, contradictory opinions about the current situation, never mind the best way forward, and varying levels of trust and mistrust between team members.

The bedrock of collaboration is effective relationships. In any organisation your ability to get things done is directly proportional to the quality of the relationships you have with your key stakeholders. In practice, this means the following:
  1. Demonstrating exemplary collaborative behaviours at the top-level. People don't believe what they hear or read, they believe what they see and experience. If senior executives fail to collaborate effectively their teams will follow this behaviour.
  2. Providing the time and space for team members to build meaningful relationships with each other. This includes face-to-face time as well as on-line access to project updates and progress reports.
  3. Appointing programme leaders who are as focused on building strong cross-functional relationships, as they are at getting the job done.
  4. Rewarding those who demonstrate top-class collaboration behaviours.
  5. Refocusing and, if necessary, removing those who get in the way of effective collaboration.
What examples of effective or ineffective collaboration have you come across in your organisation?
  • Stuart Cross

    Stuart Cross is a founder of Morgan Cross Consulting, which helps companies find new ways to drive substantial, profitable growth. His clients include Alliance Boots, Avon and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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