Gratton: Why is complex collaboration so tough?

Organisational charts often mask informal networks that cross functions. We must understand these relationships

One question I often encounter people puzzling over is: why is complex collaboration so often difficult?

By complex, I don’t mean the sort of collaboration where a few people sit with each other in a room – that’s straightforward. Rather, it is the sort of collaboration that becomes necessary when very different people, often in multiple locations, and sometimes strangers to each other, are asked to work together productively. Companies around the world find this type of collaboration very tricky.

It is because of this difficulty that I find complex collaboration so fascinating. In my 2007 book Hot Spots I described the three elements that make it possible: a collaborative culture or mindset; boundary-spanning networks; and a leadership purpose, question or task that is exciting, meaningful and igniting. Since then much of what we know about complex collaboration has remained the same – but what has changed is our understanding of the second element – boundary spanning.

My London Business School colleague Raina Brands demonstrated this when I invited her along to my programme Human Resources in Transforming Corporations. She began by profiling the network structure of each participant before sharing what the fast-developing science of network structures can tell us about corporations and how change happens. Three aspects of her contribution and the ensuing class discussion have stayed with me.

Firstly, our emotions are contagious. All of us are embedded in vast networks of friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances. Within these networks a wide variety of traits – from happiness, to obesity, to career choices – can spread from person to person. What this means is that our location in the network (who we know and how well we know them) may impact our lives in ways we don’t predict. For example, research shows that through emotional contagion, if a friend of a friend is happy, we will feel happy as well.

Secondly, organisational charts are only half the story. As the participants scrutinised their networks they observed how formal charts can mask myriad informal networks of friendship and advice. These networks crisscross the borders of functions, hierarchies and business units and define the way work actually gets done. Consequently, organisations that invest in understanding their networks and collaborative relationships greatly improve their chances of making successful organisational change.

Finally, networks define change and transformation. My colleague Herminia Ibarra from INSEAD has shown how when we transform our careers, we also transform our networks. Brands demonstrated the impact informal networks have on the likelihood of change happening across a corporation and in particular how essential it is for leaders to identify and manage three groups: the ‘change champions’ who have influence, many relationship ties and a high status; the ‘brokers’ who have networks that span between unconnected people and who transport and translate information; and the ‘powerful resistors’ who need to be carefully managed.

The class came away wondering about their own networks. Had they developed ‘the posse’, that small professional network of people who are interconnected and span the organisation? Did they have access to a ‘big ideas crowd’ – a diverse network that extends throughout the organisational hierarchy? And do they have a ‘regenerative community’ – a strong network of good friends crucial to feelings of worth and happiness?

Complex collaboration is still tough. But at least we know – through network analysis – why this is so.

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School. In 2013, she received a lifetime achievement award in the HR Most Influential rankings