· 3 min read · Features

Collaboration is hard work but it can be worth it


Many books on leadership still place their faith in the model of a single leader and yet this idea is being overtaken by the demands of a new world - one in which the capability to collaborate, even with competitors, is essential to survival. This applies to business, and even more pertinently, to the newly formed coalition government

The Conservative and Liberal Democrats must work collaboratively if they are to drag the economy out of such a large public deficit. So how can organisations adapt to this collaborative culture? How can they best overcome those inevitable differences without impeding the decision-making process and threatening the success of an organisation?

In order to collaborate, and collaborate effectively, there are several things an organisation must do: build trusting partnerships with all stakeholders; recognise the collective responsibility; commit to breaking down any barriers to effective working; and celebrate any successes as a team. Organisations need to work together across stakeholder groups as an ingrained and genuinely desired way of working, rather than an occasional novelty. As we have seen in the protracted negotiations between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, this is easier said than done and will more often than not, involve a series of potentially sensitive compromises on both sides. The aim must be to establish real collaboration - discard old boundaries, both mental and physical, and allow largely unfettered access to the organisation for the benefit of all.

For a business to be truly resilient, it should be, and be seen to be, as seamless internally as possible. However, as Lynda Gratton at London Business School observes, there are four paradoxes that need to be overcome. To implement major initiatives, complex teams are vital. Such teams have four defining characteristics - large, virtual, diverse and specialized - however, these are the same characteristics that can also destroy team members' ability to work together.

  • Large size - large teams are often formed to ensure the involvement of many stakeholders, diverse activities and multiple skills. However, once the size of a team moves beyond 20 members, the level of co-operation among team members decreases...
  • Virtual participation - skills from disparate locations are often necessary and yet the more virtual teams become the more effective collaboration declines...
  • Diversity - diverse knowledge and views offer great insight and innovation, and yet the greater the proportion of people who don't know anyone else on the team and the greater the diversity, the less likely it is that the team members will willingly share knowledge...
  • High education levels - collaborative teams generate value by drawing on specialised skills and knowledge. But the greater the proportion of highly educated specialists the more likely is the disintegration into unproductive conflicts...


So how can organisations overcome these obstacles to establish real collaboration?

Collaborating on... complex tasks:

Always ask the following four questions:

What is the optimum size of this team?

What will we gain from a team members' virtual collaboration that's better than the collaboration of those closer to home?

How can we make the different backgrounds of team members a way of building knowledge and not a barrier?

How do we get specialists to cooperate rather than fight each other?


Collaborating for... best practice at all levels of the organisation

Lynda Gratton from the London School of Business identified eight ways to build collaborative teams:

Executives need to:

  • Invest in building and maintaining social relationships throughout their organisation
  • Model what collaborative behaviour should look like
  • Use coaching to reinforce a collaborative culture


HR needs to

  • Train employees in the specific skills required for collaboration
  • Support a sense of community by sponsoring events and networking groups


Team leaders need to:

  • Ensure at least 20% to 40% of a new team's members already know one another
  • Change their leadership style as their team develops
  • Assign distinct roles so that team members can do their work independently


The aim should be to start thinking collaboratively, considering such questions as listed above, before embarking on initiatives to ensure their success and to foster an enthusiasm for future collaboration. Understandably, many organisations are nervous about using a collaborative model of working and yet, done well, the benefits can ensure a business's resilience and future success. We are all keeping our fingers crossed that the collaborative working within the new coalition government remains in place long enough to implement the necessary policies to put the economy back on track.

Gary Browning is CEO of Penna