The five key collaboration challenges

We outline the five key challenges of collaboration for businesses in today's world of work, and how best to overcome them

“We’re born into groups, we live in groups and everything of value is always in groups. No-one’s ever achieved anything on their own.” So says Richard Watkins, collaboration expert and founder of collaboration consultancy Let’s Go.

It’s heady stuff. But his pronouncement, on the perennial value of humans collaborating (or as the OED defines it: ‘working with someone to produce something’), will certainly ring true for businesses.

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For while collaboration might be as old as humanity itself it’s never been more important in the world of work, says Gurnek Bains, CEO of global change consultancy YSC.

“I don’t come across many businesses these days where the CEO or senior leadership team doesn’t believe that the next stage of their growth requires a massive increase in collaboration,” he says. “A lot of senior leaders feel they’ve exhausted the gains they can get from driving change in a silo and squeezing out efficiencies.”

“A common reason for collaboration is sharing cost and risk,” adds professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School Tammy Erickson – a statement that will speak to the many public sector organisations partnering on shared services as a way of combatting budget cuts.

The ever-increasing complexity of the world is another factor, feels Geoff Tranfield, group HRD at engineering firm IMI. “Nothing in the world exists in isolation.

"No one company, particularly when it comes to technology, does everything anymore,” he points out, regarding the critical need for IMI employees not only to collaborate across very different technical specialisms, but with people in other organisations too.

The global, fast-moving, complex and service-driven world we now inhabit brings collaboration to the fore. But it also makes it more challenging. In their Harvard Business Review article ‘Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams’, Erickson and professor of management practice at London Business School Lynda Gratton highlight the “interesting paradox” at the heart of collaboration today.

“Although teams that are large, virtual, diverse, and composed of highly-educated specialists are increasingly crucial for challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done,” they write. “To put it another way; the qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success.”

Although this article was written some time ago, Gratton confirms that this paradox is as relevant as ever. “Complex teams tend to fail,” she tells HR magazine.

“There’s got to be a very good reason why you want to bring a complex team together in terms of collaboration. The more complex a team the more you’ve got to have a uniting purpose. That could be a product they’re all excited about, it could be a question they’re answering, or a vision for the future.”

Erickson agrees that a much more mindful approach to collaboration is needed. She explains that many businesses have run with the buzz around collaboration, without thinking about who in the business is being asked to work together and why. “Normally when people say ‘collaborate’ they’re talking about interpersonal relationships: how am I having open discussions with other people to share points of view?” she says.

Encouraging much more day-to-day, informal collaboration can be valuable, she says. But businesses must be deliberate in their approach – or risk collaboration-overload. “There are at least 10 reasons for or ways of collaborating,” says Erickson. “Think: why are you collaborating?”

Once organisations have asked ‘why?’ and taken a more conscious approach they’ll be ready to move on to tackling the complexity paradox. They’ll be able to turn the below five key collaboration challenges into organisation-enhancing opportunity…

1. Business models

‘Hierarchy’ has become something of a dirty word in many organisations. And with good reason: “Things are complex and challenges happen quickly, so the idea of things moving up the chain for someone at the top to have a view of what needs to be done is not practical,” says Clare Dyer, chief people officer at broadband internet provider KCOM.

“It’s impossible to feel in the world we live in today that one person has the answer to what we’re trying to do.”

Media and marketing agency Mindshare knows the value of empowering all employees to collaborate and speak up with ideas. “When we first launched our transformation programme we spent half a day once a month working together, the whole agency,” says chief talent officer Jenny Healy.

“That taught us ideas can come from anywhere and collaboration is something that’s got to flow through the business. One of the best ideas, for an online dating agency, came from reception.”

But a collaborative democracy, and flatter hierarchies more generally, still need systems and structure.

“We launched training for ‘change agents’ across the agency,” explains Healy. “These individuals were given tools and techniques to create sessions.” She adds that the power of democratic brainstorming and decision-making was retained by not choosing the obvious types.

“The people we chose weren’t the obvious people that would spring to mind; we also chose people who are quiet influencers. Maybe you wouldn’t automatically think of them but they’re great connectors – they talk to people, they’re great listeners.”

KCOM advocates a similar balance between empowerment, and accountability and structure. “It’s being clear where responsibility falls for the decisions being made; that’s a bit of a journey we’ve been on,” says Dyer. “We’ve found too many people think they’ve got that responsibility.”

The opposite issue (of no-one taking ownership) can prove just as troublesome, says Let’s Go’s Watkins. “A big problem in the move to flatter structures is the move away from accountability,” he says.

“We know over-controlled hierarchies don’t work and we’ve learned that no accountability doesn’t work, because we need to avoid chaos. We need dynamic structures.”

Dynamic structures are what Toyota GB has been aiming for in introducing a collaborative rapid-prototyping culture.

“People have to get used to the fact they’ve probably got multiple stakeholders and are involved in multiple projects, which means they’re not automatically always reporting to their direct line manager,” says HR director Robin Giles, explaining this might involve an employee being ‘senior’ or a decision maker in one team but not in another.

As at Mindshare, collaboration agents or ‘scrum masters’ have been key. “They bring that technique to new areas of the business,” says Giles.

It’s crucial to realise that the champion or facilitator won’t always be the most senior person, says Watkins. “Too often we think of facilitators as external. But we need internal people and they won’t necessarily be the most senior,” he explains.”

“We need leaders who understand collaboration, which will enable them to be more dynamic and responsive. Most leaders have been trained on hierarchies and now are being asked to develop more fluid, dynamic processes.”

The biggest challenge for many will be busting silos. The value of unlocking knowledge held in one part of a business and bringing it to another is potentially huge, but this will require a huge mindset shift, says YSC’s Bains.

“You can’t just wave a magic wand and do that; there’s years of habit around how you deal with people in another function,” he says.

“We have an intervention called a breakthrough relationship conversation where relations might have been fraught, but you put things on the table and wipe the slate clean.”

He adds: “Even if people below the senior leaders want to co-operate, the siloed competitiveness of leaders can get in the way. Sometimes you have to work at that level to make sure they’re working together. We’ve orchestrated processes where we’ve got feedback from the people below the leaders saying ‘this isn’t on’. Sometimes you need that pressure to make change.”

“One pharma company I’ve worked with found that its scientists weren’t sharing information,” says Erickson. “So it created a team whose whole job was to go around and talk to the scientists about what was going on and figure out who in the rest of the company would be interested in it.”

One strategy Toyota has found valuable is never setting an employee’s discipline in stone, with frequent cross-functional promotions and moves.

“We don’t recruit specialists; we recruit people who can be flexible and adapt to new projects,” says Giles, who started as sales manager and has held marketing and corporate planning positions before HR.

2. Working environment and technology

A key difference between today’s and yesterday’s organisation is a shift in the proportion of individuals who sit ‘inside the organisation’ as full- or part-time employees and those engaged on a freelance, contract or interim basis.

“There’s the gig economy and the more fluid workforce,” highlights director of digital strategy at leadership and management consultancy ILM, John Williams. “People move around jobs far more frequently than in the past, and teams are created and disbanded for individual projects and shorter periods of time.”

Williams says a strong onboarding process and training, even where someone isn’t staying long term, are key.

“To address the potential barriers to collaboration that temporary workforces may pose, organisations can look at making sure their onboarding programme is effective and gets employees up to speed as quickly as possible,” he says. “Whether it’s on the job or before they join, if all employees are welcomed and connected to the right tools and insights they will be much better equipped.”

Training is also important, he adds: “Upskilling employees in areas like communication, team working, adaptability, decision-making, and project co-ordination will give them the tools they need to work collaboratively.”

Then comes the challenge of collaboration between remote workers. Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futures in BT Global Services’ innovation team, and author of The Collaboration Conundrum: A WorkShift whitepaper, explains the value of enabling remote working: “The problem is office spaces are often designed for a lot of different activities.

"We try and cram in collaboration and communication but then we have people trying to contemplate and concentrate. Open plan becomes a distraction piece.”

Natalie O Hara, HR director at Halton Housing Trust, explains technology has been key in enabling employees to benefit from the productivity and wellbeing benefits of remote working while still collaborating by proxy.

“Office 365, which we implemented last year, has been quite a game changer,” she says. “You can share your screen and edit something at the same time as someone else. It’s simple things that make a big difference.”

“Technology such as Skype certainly helps teams work together,” says London Business School’s Gratton.

Virtual reality is going to be a big part of getting virtual teams collaborating.” Erickson warns though that technology can be both an enabler and barrier. “A problem companies have is they buy one technology and think people will use it for all types of collaboration. That’s just crazy,” she says.

Millard cites email as a common obstacle, recommending social tools such as Slack and Yammer and even the humble telephone as superior. “Where tech can help is adding humanity,” agrees Watkins. “Technology doesn’t help because it’s technical; it helps because it’s human. I use Skype and Facetime because you transmit a lot of what’s going on in your face.”

“It’s simple things like having a directory that tells you: I’ve had a good idea, who would be interested in that?” adds Erickson. “Companies are absolutely doing that.”

For many, meeting face-to-face is still crucial. “Perhaps there’s just one afternoon a week where you all come together as a team,” recommends Toyota’s Giles.

]KCOM’s Dyer adds that senior individuals may collaborate better remotely than junior ones: “When we did our network analysis we found the more senior you were the more effectively you worked remotely because you were more connected to the network.”

Given the importance of in-person collaboration, offices designed to enable this without detracting from solo work are important. “A lot of companies are doing more of an open floorplan so people sit near different people every day, which is smart,” says Erickson.

“In my favourite R&D facility that I visited everybody had a private office. But it was tiny. If you wanted to go out and meet people you could go into this lovely inviting lounge area.”

A space where you can actually do work is critical when collaborating on a specific project, says Watkins: “In management you meet about work, in collaboration you meet to do the work. So the space needs to accommodate that. I’m from a science background. Scientists are great at collaborating but they don’t have weird sofas. They work in a lab that is open but also grounded in the work.”

3. Global

Where collaborating globally there’ll be much less opportunity to work face-to-face. This risks losing the benefit of having lots of different perspectives informing the work, or of understanding a local customer base.

“It’s helpful for virtual teams to get together [in person] near the beginning [of a project],” says Gratton. “It turns out to be quite difficult to trust each other, particularly if you’re doing a complex task, if you’ve never met.

“I’m on a global group that looks at the future of learning and the reason it works is we spend one and a half days together every year in Boston. We do a lot of processes where we listen to each other. The first thing we do is go around the group and say to each person: ‘what’s on your mind?’ The second thing is we all write half a page before we arrive on our thinking. That’s incredibly important.”

“I recommend global teams meet at least at the beginning. It’s team building, going out, getting to know each other, laughing together – those things we can’t do at a distance,” advises Erin Meyer, senior affiliate professor in the organisational behaviour department at INSEAD. “The actual work we can get done at a distance.”

She adds that this initial meeting should also involve discussion of the ‘how’ of collaborating.

“I recommend global teams spend a day at the beginning discussing how they will debate things or what the role of leader means. That’s an investment, it takes a lot of time. But if you don’t do that you end up with inefficiencies later on.”

While face-to-face teams can rely on “mutual adjustment” (where “we just work together and don’t know how it happens”), virtual global teams will need much more centralisation (“the boss tells us what to do”) and formalisation (“we all get together and write down how we’re going to work together”).

Global teams will also have to invest significant time and money in understanding each other’s cultural nuances, Meyer advises.

“People in different countries have very different implicit understandings of who makes the decision and how it’s made. One of the big cultural differences is how positive we feel about expressing disagreement. In France or Russia it’s positive. But in Mexico, Brazil and Thailand that will lead to a breakdown in the relationship.

“There are some simple techniques to overcome this. While in France you might say ‘I totally disagree’, in the US you brainstorm ideas so you can say ‘I disagree with idea’ rather than ‘I disagree with Sally’. That depersonalises it.”

Watkins adds that working with a country where consensus-driven collaboration is the norm can be an excellent learning opportunity. “I’ve worked with a lot of Swedish companies and they’re very collaborative in nature,” he says. “They maybe take longer to get there but they generate a strong sense of momentum. That’s probably echoed in some Asian countries.”

YSC’s Bains warns, however, that working with strongly relational cultures, such as the Middle East and China, can be harder than you’d expect. “We found they struggle the most sometimes because they’re used to handling relationships close-up. They need much more help than you’d think,” he says.

4. Diversity

Global working isn’t the only scenario in which employees need to be able to collaborate with those different to themselves. The increasingly diverse nature of today’s workplaces is to be celebrated – and should in an ideal world lead to boosted creativity, innovation and higher quality output.

But the uncomfortable truth is that diversity can actually block rather than enhance collaboration, if not handled correctly. “One of the recent breakthroughs in neuroscience is the discovery of mirror neurons, which fire, for example, when you see someone else experience pain,” says Bains.

“Research shows that when you’re watching people you define as another group, such as another racial group, your mirror neurons hardly fire at all.”

“Diversity helps with the quality and creativity of output but it hurts collaboration. That’s the reality,” agrees Erickson. “We don’t collaborate as well with people we perceive as different.”

Leaders must therefore help people get to know and trust each other, she says. “We noticed from our research that diversity is ever-evolving,” she says.

“You have to watch as the fault lines in your team shift. On day one you may have brought together some marketing people and scientists, so it’s diversity of disciplines. By day two they’ve started to get to know each other and it’s ‘we’re the old guys, they’re the kids’. Now diversity is age-related and there’s a fault line around that. By day three they’ve started to talk politics…”

The crucial element is time, says Erickson. It takes time for at least superficially different people to get comfortable with each other. “If you have a crisis where you need a rapid solution do not pull out the 10 smartest people if they don’t know each other,” she says. “They won’t have time to form a relationship.”

For Sodexo it’s about finding the right balance between valuing difference and challenging stereotypes. “You’ve got vast differences within the five generations,” says Meg Horsburgh, the firm’s head of diversity and inclusion. “They’ve had hugely different life experiences and so have different work styles.” Sodexo uses a generation card game to stimulate conversation around age diversity.

Ben Antoniou, diversity and inclusion manager at Dentsu Aegis Network, warns that helping diverse sets of employees work together shouldn’t just be about them getting on and seeing how similar they really are.

“We’ve spent quite a lot of time talking to people about how it might take longer [to collaborate across a diverse team] but the answer will be better because you’ll have considered all viewpoints, and with getting them not to consider conflict as painful,” he says. “One of the lines we’ve used is ‘get comfortable being uncomfortable’.”

“How you manage and appreciate diverse views is important, because if you simply assimilate them you’re saying ‘everybody’s got to be the same’,” agrees Gratton. “If you appreciate them you can stand back and say their combination is powerful.”

She advises not to only look at superficial characteristics when seeking diverse input: “Often the deeper diversity is about how you think. What is it you’re excited about?”

5. Open innovation

The opportunity-cum-challenge of collaborating with other organisations is perhaps the most complex of today’s world. But it’s one more businesses will be contemplating and attempting to get to grips with, explains Paul Sparrow, emeritus professor of international HRM at Lancaster University Management School. “Technically this kind of collaboration has become more enabled,” he explains.

Globalisation has also played a role. “In terms of gaining access to a particular geography, you have to collaborate with local organisations, with governments,” Sparrow says, adding that in the ever more complex, sophisticated worlds of engineering and technology the risk of innovating can’t be shouldered by one company.

“If you take sectors like energy and aerospace the cost of innovation is so high and the risk so high that no one organisation can afford to do this, so they have to collaborate.”

This applies to the kinds of parts IMI produces for complicated end products, explains group HRD Tranfield: “For example when you press a button to open a train door we produce that component to help it shut safely.

You have to understand how the train manufacture works, how we fit into the value chain. If we’re producing components without an understanding of what the end customer needs, but also what others are supplying as part of that engineering framework, we’re not necessarily going to be as efficient as we can be. You need to tell people collaboration is a good thing to do.”

This involves HR making it explicit that collaboration is expected from all staff, he adds. “We did an employee survey and the key missing value was collaboration,” he recalls.

“We decided to build a much deeper culture of collaboration. Through performance management we say one of the things we judge you on is your ability to collaborate; we’ve designed bespoke leadership models around that.”

Utilising ‘bridge’ employees who understand the worlds of organisations IMI partners with, such as universities, is crucial. “A lot of what we do in mechanical engineering ties in with digital so it’s important our people understand that world,” says Tranfield.

“We co-operate with academic institutions on R&D so it’s having a diverse enough employee population that they understand that world. If you get that range of experience internally there’ll be someone able to interface externally.”

“These kinds of collaboration create the need for hybrid skills, where you’ve got these important bridge roles,” agrees Sparrow. HR may find itself tasked, in conjunction perhaps with industry bodies, with assessing the capability levels in not just its own but other organisations.

“Someone has to look across the whole of the network and understand what these new skills are and put them in place,” he says. “You have to assess whether you have good capabilities in your suppliers to deliver productivity improvements and so on.”

All touch points between the two organisations must be assessed and employees trained accordingly, adds Sparrow. “There are risks associated with the joining points and they’re often misunderstood,” he says.

“In healthcare for example, often it’s the client-facing or internal IT people who actually have to pass critical information from one organisation to another. And there are massive risks with getting that wrong. Everyone’s thinking about the top teams. But the talent system has to be recalibrated because you suddenly find particular jobs have moved up the importance scale and other ones down.”

The opportunity to gain competitive edge by collaborating with other businesses isn’t confined to highly technical fields. Mindshare often partners with start-ups, chief talent officer Healy explains: “It’s given our talent the opportunity to work on very fast-moving smaller projects, which gives them new ideas and thinking. It keeps things fresh. But you need some tools in place just so people are very clear how they work within various projects.”

Taking a highly collaborative approach with clients is important in Healy’s sector. “People need to see more than one face,” she advises. “The client is part of ongoing conversations, so rather than just seeing one account person, they have touch points with various people across the agency.”

“Our customers expect to have input into what we’re doing,” agrees KCOM chief people officer Dyer. “You expect that every day now. You feedback as a customer. The world has made that shift.”