The Mystery of Collaboration

All my clients are asking this question: “How can we increase collaboration?”

Instead of collaboration, they see people struggling to connect and build productive relationships within an increasingly complex environment. This produces a variety of outcomes that range from mild confusion to more destructive behaviors such as information hoarding, turf battles, political posturing, gossip, and stonewalling.

What’s going on?

Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, has been studying the subject of collaboration for several years. In fact, Lynda’s research is so compelling that she’s become an international leader in a movement to create more collaborative, productive [and, I might add, humane] cultures, even within the largest and most bureaucratic multinational corporations.

Gratton makes several critical points:

  • If you examine human history and our own experiences of collaboration, it’s evident that human beings are actually “wired” for collaboration. It’s a natural instinct. However, collaboration is relatively easy when there is a high degree of similarity, e.g. same community, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, language, etc.
  • The conundrum we face today is that technology, globalization, and hyper-capitalism [my editorial addition] are creating massive complexity globally, locally, and within our organizations. This means that collaboration must now be achieved across distance, across difference, and among strangers. Now we’re asking human beings to do something that doesn’t feel comfortable or natural.
  • If we look further at teams, the trend is toward larger size, increasing virtual participation, increased diversity and higher levels of specialization/education. All of these factors increase the likelihood of unproductive conflict and decrease the potential for high performing teams.
  • 2 key areas are holding organizations back from building collaborative cultures:
      • A lack of leaders who model collaborative behavior and who actively address issues and barriers to collaboration.
      • Outdated work practices and behavioral norms that continue to drive command and control mentalities, competition, and turf wars.
  • Gratton’s research has taken her into organizations who are actively experimenting with new mindsets, rules of engagement and cultures. She makes the point that our old hierarchical structures are no longer effective in an era of globalization. In effect, hierarchy is good at regulation – but a regulatory mindset creates ponderous, redundant and expensive structures that are unsuited to today’s organizations.
  • Rather than hierarchy, what’s emerging is the networked organization. In effect, organizations have always been a network of relationships, but by shifting the focus from hierarchy to networks, one begins to appreciate the enormous creativity and potential that lies dormant in organizations that rely on senior leaders to tell them what to do.
  • A focus on networks alone won’t make a difference – a critical point is that rules, norms, mindsets and behaviors must also change to enable networks. For example, networks operate effectively when they use what Gratton calls a “managerial practice of commitment making.” In plain English, this means that trust is built across networks when people keep their word and honor the commitments they make to each other.
  • These changes are seismic – and are becoming a reality in many organizations. To enable a collaborative culture, change agents must focus on designing virtuous cycles that reinforce the values of collaboration, connection, and cooperation. These include demonstrable norms, mindsets, and language that provide alternatives to prevailing corporate mindsets.

Would you like to learn more about Gratton’s work?  Visit the Hot Spot Movement site:  In particular, I recommend the webinar on “Leading a Collaborative Organization” which you can find here: