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Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results


I’ve spent a great deal of my professional career working on helping users collaborate in one form or another. I setup Local Area Networks (LANs) when they were still called that and not networks. I connected folks via email before the Internet was a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. I have spent the last 14 years helping organizations collaborate with Microsoft SharePoint. So when some colleagues said that I had to read Collaboration, I didn’t hesitate to pick up the book. What I didn’t realize when they recommended it was that the author, Morten Hansen, had a specific definition of collaboration in mind, and it didn’t necessarily match my point of view.

To Conspire with the Enemy

If you’ve heard me talk about collaboration – or creating engagement – you know that I love to poke fun at the word collaboration because it means so many different things to so many different people. As a result it’s a word that I’ve come to associate as the starting point for a conversation instead of the end. In most contexts, I define collaboration as working with others towards a common goal. It’s a simple definition and it covers a lot of ground.

When I’ve got an audience that’s being contrary, the dictionary definition I throw out to jar my audience is “to conspire with the enemy.” This definition isn’t the kind of definition that you would normally expect someone talking about collaboration to have and therefore can sometimes be the spark to start a discussion.

Regardless of how you define collaboration, Morten Hansen has a specific large organization definition for collaboration. His definition is focused on different parts of a large organization working together. As such, it’s really not applicable to most of the organizations on the planet. It works great for the Fortune 1000, but as the organizations get smaller and more focused, the guidance from Collaboration gets less directly useful. Despite this, the book does echo some of the concepts discussed elsewhere which are broadly applicable – and important for organizations of all sizes. I found that most of the concepts in the book were rooted in strong research and can be easily adapted to organizations of any size.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Perhaps the most heretical discussion in the book is that there can be too much collaboration. Conventional wisdom is that collaboration is good and more collaboration is better. That is, that you should be able to have more and more collaboration with greater and greater positive impact on the bottom line but Hansen effectively argues that there are times when collaboration for collaboration’s sake isn’t adding value to the bottom line. His argument is that it’s possible to have collaboration that makes everyone feel good but isn’t helping to move the organization forward.

It is possible that the cost of collaboration exceeds the business benefit of the collaboration. The recommendation is to take the return on the collaboration and subtract out both the direct costs of the collaboration as well as the opportunity costs for the time spent on the collaboration process. If the number is positive then collaboration is warranted – if it’s negative then the collaboration isn’t worth it.

Of course, this puts the decision to a mathematical precision that may or may not be warranted – and as mentioned in How to Measure Anything, sometimes our ability to estimate isn’t the best.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices quoted How to Measure Anything to talk about biases. Thinking, Fast and Slow also spoke about biases – including an anchoring bias that causes us to make differential adjustments to an estimate – even if the baseline estimate is fundamentally flawed. Collaboration points out that many mergers speak about the synergies that the organizations will be able to capitalize on together – many of which never materialize. There are many reasons for this including bad estimates but also an underestimation of the work it is to merge two cultures.

Cultures are funny things. They’re made up of the people, processes, and interactions but they also resist being changed by people or changing processes. This makes it difficult for employees at the various organizations to work together. Sometimes organizations have been competitors and the situation is worse because there’s a distrust that has built up between the organizations.

Means and Ends

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the idea of collaboration and how fun it is to be able to share with our peers that we forget to make sure that it’s delivering business value. As I mentioned in my review of Who Am I?, Aristotle divided human motives into means and ends. Since then we’ve continued to struggle with forgetting why we’re doing something. We get so wrapped up into doing it – like collaboration – that we forget why we’re doing it.

In most businesses, collaboration is a means to the end goal of accomplishing the corporate mission. If we get lost in the idea of collaboration and forget that there’s a mission to be completed we’ve slipped into the means and ends confusion.

T-Shaped Management

In today’s world there’s a conflict between what managers are being asked to do to drive their own individual team performance and what they’re being asked to do to support others – as they’re trying to maximize their business unit’s contribution to the bottom line. Managers are being asked to deliver performance from their units and simultaneously being asked to support their peers through collaboration. This sets up an interesting conflict since you only have so much time and you can only spend it working on improving your own performance or on helping others.

Collaboration makes a point that the best managers are those managers who can find a way to do both – to accomplish their own performance goals while helping others. Perhaps the need for both selfish individual team productivity and cross-team collaboration makes the question that was asked in Destructive Emotions about whether we’re Rational egoists (we’re compassionate because it’s self-serving), selfish and compassionate, or compassionate and selfish – somewhat moot. Drive told us that some of our intrinsic motivators are overwhelmed and corrupted by explicit external motivators like compensation.

In Collaboration we learn that 70% of the time we’ll collaborate with one another – unless we change the name of the game to Wall Street – in which case we’ll defect (work in a non-collaborative manor) 70% of the time. Kurt Lewin’s famous quote that “behavior is a function of both person and environment” includes the words that we use and the expectations as the environment.

Words Matter

Jerry Seinfeld is famous for his hit sitcom Seinfeld show – a self-described show about nothing. The assumption is often made that Jerry Seinfeld has always been a funny man. Perhaps that’s true, but as we learned about many great leaders in Outliers and Extraordinary Minds, most great leaders had to practice. In Jerry Seinfeld’s case, he honed his skills for comedy by working on brevity. He learned from the old saw “I would have written a shorter letter if I only had more time.” Learning to be brief – but not too brief is an art form that isn’t practiced that often any longer.

If you’ve been a part of marketing campaign development you know how much time can be invested trying to determine the right message – and even the right words. Discussions rage and testing ensues to ensure that the most impact can be extracted from a marketing exercise.

More close to home, most of us have been in a relationship where we’ve said the wrong thing and have inadvertently caused damage to a relationship. Wives have said things that hurt their husbands and vice-versa. (If this is a real problem, reading The Science of Trust might be useful.)

Leaders’ words are important. They can fan the fires of collaboration or deeply hurt the collaboration path that the organization is on. A leader’s words should both build the logical argument for collaboration but more importantly develop an emotional connection to the goal. In The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch there was the Elephant-Rider-Path model which encouraged us to ensure that we were making both the logical argument and the emotional one. If leaders choose their words they can effectively motivate employees to collaborate when appropriate.

Disciplined Collaboration

Hansen believes that the key to effectiveness with collaboration is disciplined collaboration which he defines in one phrase “the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required.”

This practice – he believes prevents both over and underinvestment in collaboration. Disciplined collaboration takes strong leaders.

Strong Leaders

In Good to Great Jim Collins talks about the Stockdale Paradox “You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” It’s this same type of strength that is needed to encourage the right kind of collaboration – at the right time – in an organization.

However, even with strong leaders who are practicing disciplined collaboration there are problems. Collaborative environments sometimes make it hard to maintain individual accountability.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Camouflage is used by animals and warriors to hide in plain sight. Because there is nothing specific about their marks and appearance they’re able to blend in with the background. Some collaboration is like that when people are part of a large group and when performance isn’t measured specific to the person they tend to develop a characteristic called social loafing.

That is they assume that someone else will do the work and they can sit back and relax. This is a hidden danger for organizations as they seek to improve collaboration – maintaining individual accountability in the context of supporting collaboration with others.

Make It Easy

If you want to make collaboration work, you’ll need to ensure that the process is well understood as explained in Don’t Make Me ThinkDemand spoke about the idea of a hassle map and how you need to reduce the number of hassles to create a product that people want. Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web mentioned that when Amazon introduced tagging on its site no one knew how to use it and so no one did. When driving collaboration you’ll want to eliminate the ambiguity and help everyone know what to expect. Collaboration quotes a study that says that intention has little to do with execution – when students were shown how to get to the health center to get a tetanus shot they got the shot 28% of the time as compared to just 3% of the time if they were just shown the reasons to get the shot.

When you’re trying to get to collaboration you want to make it easy rather than motivating them that it’s something important to do. If your organization prevents information sharing or limits how business units can work with one another you may find that it’s difficult – if not impossible – to get collaboration to take off. But this isn’t the only barrier.


There are four key types of barriers that you may encounter when trying to implement collaboration. Each barrier has several factors that lead to it.

1: Not Invented Here

I posted a complete post on the Wisdom of Not Invented Here, however in the context of Collaboration, they believe that there are four factors that lead to it. They are:

  • Insular Culture – The more tightly nit a group becomes the less open they are to input from the outside.
  • Status Gap – People tend to accept input more readily from those of similar status to themselves rather than those who have a much higher or lower status.
  • Self-Reliance – The more self-reliant folks are the less likely they are to acknowledge that good ideas can come from others.
  • Fear – No one likes revealing their shortcomings. By accepting something from someplace else you’re admitting one of your limitations.

2: Hoarding

Some kids will openly share their toys – and others won’t. That may be because of the “licking and grooming” they received as children. (See How Children Succeed for more.) However, that does you little good when you’re trying to drive collaboration in your organization. Here are four non-childhood factors that lead to hoarding behaviors:

  • Competition – When people or groups inside the organization are invited to compete with one another there’s a natural tendency to hoard. So keep competition outside the walls of the organization and collaboration inside.
  • Narrow incentives – The more narrowly you incent people for their own performance, the lower the motivation for sharing activities. Make sure that the incentives are balanced between internal performance and sharing and collaborating.
  • Being Too Busy – Organizations have lost thousands of workers so it seems like everyone is trying to do more with less. Collaboration takes time – and you don’t have time you won’t be able to collaborate.
  • Fear of Losing Power – A common question is “If knowledge is power what happens to my power when I share it?” Despite the fact that generally you become more powerful – from a knowledge perspective – when sharing it feels uncomfortable and generates a fear.

3: Search

In the world of today we’re used to Google and the ability to find what we’re interested in – however, that’s only in our public lives. We still realize that inside an organization finding information is tricky and difficult. In most organizations there is no enterprise search and in many cases what you’re looking for isn’t written down. What you really need is locked up inside someone’s head somewhere. Here are four factors that lead to the search barrier:

  • Company size – The larger the company the harder it is to create an enterprise search solution that delivers contents and people to you when you need it.
  • Physical Distance – The larger the difference between people the lower the chances that you’ll discover the information you need by chance. Marcia Bates believes that we find 80% of what we know accidentally – so proximity matters. (See Pervasive Information ArchitectureThe New Edge in Knowledge, and Thinking, Fast and Slow.)
  • Information Overload – We’ve created so many sources of information and we’ve made it so much easier for anyone to communicate, that we’ve created an overload of information. (See The Information Diet and The Paradox of Choice for more)
  • Poverty of Networks – We believe that it’s a small world – and in some ways it is. However, we fail to realize that what we see is not all there is. Just because we can’t find it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

4: Transfer

I’ve written a few times about tacit knowledge and the problems of knowledge management including in: Lost KnowledgeThe New Edge in KnowledgeThe Wisdom of CrowdsThinking, Fast and SlowPervasive Information Architecture; and Apprentice, Journeyman, Master. The transfer barrier – the fact that transferring information is hard is a fundamental barrier to collaboration and life. Here are three key factors:

  • Tacit Knowledge – Tacit knowledge is either “unarticulated knowledge waiting transfer” or “cannot be transferred: we know more than we can tell” depending upon who you want to believe. In either case, conveying it to someone else is hard and most frequently requires person-to-person communication which can be difficult.
  • No Common frame – Because there’s little similarity between two people it’s hard to establish the common framework necessary for communication. Literally the mental models that two people have are so different they can’t communicate (See The Fifth DisciplineSources of PowerEfficiency in Learning, and The Art of Explanation.)
  • Weak Ties – It’s difficult to share your knowledge with someone that you don’t have a strong relationship with. You want to have a deep connection to trust that the person you’re sharing with won’t use the knowledge against you.

Criteria for Effective Collaboration Goals

As Lewis Carol said “If you don’t know where you’re going then any road will get you there.” Having an effective goal – or goals – is critical if you know you want to foster collaboration in your environment. Here are four criteria for setting goals that lead to collaboration.

1: Must Create a Common Fate

There’s the parable of the farmer’s birthday where all of the animals get together and agree to make him breakfast. The chicken will give up some eggs and there will be ham and toast. When the animals turn to the pig and ask him what he thinks of the plan he says “I think that you are all interested in this plan but I’m invested.” Investment is what you want from all of the parties and that you’ll only get if everyone is subject to the same consequences – good or bad. You won’t get everyone motivated to make collaboration successful if some folks aren’t a part of the rewards or consequences of the success or failure.

2: Must Be Simple and Concrete

Platitudes, those dull, flat, trite remarks uttered if profound, have no place in setting effective goals. Everyone should be able to understand the goal without any further explanation. It’s not about being “preeminent in the exploration of space” – it’s about “landing a man on the moon and bringing him safely back to Earth within the decade.” There’s no explanation needed because we know what needs to be done. Goals that leave no room for ambiguity and are simple are fuel for the collaboration engine.

3: Must Stir Passion

Most goals are positively boring. They talk to the rider (See the Elephant-Rider-Path model in The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) We need to talk to the elephant and get people emotionally involved. That means appealing to a higher purpose or at least connecting with the kind of person that someone wants to be. We want people to be engaged.

4: Must Put Competition on the Outside

As mentioned above, when employees are competing with each other it makes it hard to collaborate. It leads to hording behaviors where they won’t help others for fear that it will give their coworkers an advantage over them in their competition.

Sins of Collaboration Hopefuls

Sometimes there are mistakes that can be made that will make collaboration harder than it needs to be or should be. Here are three sins that can kill collaboration.

1: Small Teamwork Kills Collaboration

The more that you get a small group to work together as a team and collaborate internally the less likely they are to collaborate across groups. Diffusion of Innovations speaks about how the cosmopolitan-ness of an individual determines how fast they’ll adopt an innovation. Said differently, the more that someone interacts with other groups the more likely they are to accept external ideas.

2: Everybody Do Teamwork Now (Except Those of Us at the Top)

Collaboration is – sometimes – treated like a great idea as long as you’re not the first one to have to try it. Leadership can kill collaboration by saying one thing and doing another – or the opposite. If you’re a leader and you’re invested in creating collaboration, you’ll need to deliver the goods by doing some collaboration yourself.

3: Teamwork Becomes the Point of It All

As mentioned above you can’t take your eye off the ball and forget that collaboration is a means to an end – it’s not an end in and of itself. When collaboration becomes the goal instead of the tool to get to the goal, you’ve got a problem.

Rules for Effective Networks

Collaboration relies on the network of people that you build. It’s the people that you can reach in and ask a question of. It’s the people that you trust and that trust you enough to share information. Here are six rules for building your networks.

1: Build Outward, Not Inward

Diversity in your network is important as we’ve discussed above. The more that you can associate with people in different networks the more effective your network can be because you can reach out to people with dissimilar skills and knowledge. The more heterogeneous your network the more likely it is that you’ll find an answer when you need it.

2: Build Diversity, Not Size

Each connection in a networks requires some level of effort to create and to maintain – though admittedly some require remarkably low levels of energy to maintain such as a childhood friend. The goal in building an effective network is to build diversity in the group – not to increase the size of the network for the sake of the network size. Consider the Dunbar number – the awareness that the number of social connections that an animal can maintain is directly related to the size of the animal’s brain and that humans can maintain roughly 150 social connections. (See The Information Diet and The Happiness Hypothesis.)

Most professionals today are working well above this number with hundreds or thousands of Facebook fans, Twitter followers, and Linked In connections. Being aware that we’re working beyond the number of connections that humans can reasonably support should keep us focused on building connections that can get us to different resources – rather than having six or more connections to the same information.

3: Build Weak Ties, Not Strong Ones

The Dunbar number actually refers to close social connections. That is the number that is fixed. Our connections through social media and our casual acquaintances don’t directly count. The Dunbar number is derived from the amount of capacity the brain has for retaining and recalling facts about other people. So it’s quite literally impossible for someone to maintain close social connections with a large number of people – so build the connections you can but realize that they won’t be the closest.

4: Use Bridges, Not Familiar Faces

Despite the fact that we have automated operators that can answer and route calls through an organization, most organizations haven’t fired their live operators. The reason is clear, live operators are better at connecting people when they don’t know exactly where they need to go. They’re great at translating the caller’s language into the language of the organization. A similar thing happens with bridges. They are able to translate the question which due to lack of knowledge, is ill formed and push it along the way to someone else who can get the person closer to what they need.

Bridges have large numbers of connections which are typically very diverse. This large number of connections doesn’t often provide the answer directly but rather moves things forward. For instance, I have a handyman who is a friend. If I need to find a plumber, someone to do flooring, or a roofer I call my friend. He’s a bridge into a whole class of workers for home repair and improvement.

5: Swarm the Target; Do Not Go It Alone

Building credibility and trust with someone – so that they’ll collaborate with you – can be challenging particularly for those folks who don’t trust easily like those folks who are in power. When you’re seeking to expand your network to influential people, leverage a variety of connections to help them realize that you should be trustworthy. (See my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on trust.)

6: Switch to Strong Ties; Do Not Rely on Weak Ones

Weak ties are enough to get you to someone to be able to start the collaboration process – however, if you’re in a sustained collaboration you’ll need to make some direct investments to strengthen your connection to someone for a time. The more distance between you and the other person geographically or experientially, the more effort you’ll need to put into building a strong connection.

Collaboration Redefined

Collaboration may have defined the word collaboration differently than it’s defined in many contexts but that definition didn’t stop the content of the book from being relevant to those who define collaboration more traditionally. Whether you’re trying to get a team to work together or collaboration across groups in an organization, there’s a lot to learn from others – and from Collaboration.