Organizations face an increasingly complex and unpredictable competitive landscape, and one that is filled with new, aggressive competitors. Achieving more growth through greater innovation, searching for new business opportunities across customer segments and leveraging best business practices to improve operational efficiency demand that leaders know how to work across organizational boundaries. Organizations usually get the kind of behavior they reward, and they have historically rewarded achievement-oriented leaders who drive short-term results. As a result, companies have ended up with leaders who excel at the achievement orientation, teamwork and organizational awareness competencies that are associated with strong functional leadership. Unfortunately, the matrixed, global structure that is becoming the norm for many organizations requires leaders who can subordinate their agenda, yield power and give up resources for the greater good.
Matrix organizations typically have moved away from hierarchy toward a much flatter structure in which employees operate with less direct supervision from functional leaders. Leaders in the matrix organization need to know how to promote collaboration across business units and functional areas, and to coordinate and motivate employees, over whom they may have no direct authority, to achieve a goal whose value may not be immediately apparent to all team members. In a matrixed world, good collaboration can lead to the rapid launch of next-generation, market-changing products.
In his seminal book Collaboration, UC Berkeley professor Morten Hansen illustrates the value of collaboration by tracing the success of Apple’s iPod music player versus the belated launch of a similar product by Sony. Hansen notes that it took Apple just eight months starting from scratch to collaborate across its organization and find a way to create the iPod. Sony, on the other hand, spent three years engaged in internal infighting before launching a competing MP3 player that had little success.
The success of the iPod can be attributed to Apple’s ability to manage rapid innovation through excellent internal and external collaborative networks. At Sony, where the culture encouraged internal competition over collaboration, a digital music player did not make as much sense from a P&L standpoint for any individual business unit. As a result, the project did not move forward, even though it held the potential to deliver large P&L benefits for the entire organization.
Companies should assess and qualify collaboration opportunities just as they qualify sales leads to decide whether a particular collaboration effort makes sense. Reducing the costs of collaboration improves the chance that a collaboration initiative will have a positive ROI. However, companies can improve their odds even further by following five guidelines for successful collaboration:
- Be clear about the destination – define the goalposts and communicate those definitions to collaboration partners. Know when to start the collaboration and when the collaboration has achieved maximum benefits and can be dissolved.
- Develop mutual understanding – collaborative success depends on trust, and trust depends on good communication. Collaborative leaders must not only be clear about their own goals, they must also understand and respect their collaborative partners’ goals in order to find ways to bring these diverse goals into alignment.
- Know when to lead and when to follow – the best collaborative leaders are those who are comfortable occasionally letting their partners take a leadership role. At certain times, partners may be the only ones with the resources necessary to push a project forward. Partners who play leadership roles are also more likely to feel a sense of ownership in the project, which can increase their motivation and performance.
- Set schedules and stick to them – many collaborative efforts are undertaken to accelerate innovation in fast-moving markets. Sticking to a realistic time table avoids conflicts and prevents disappointment. Collaborative tools such as the wikis and telepresence technologies discussed above, or information-sharing forums like SharePoint, can help speed up the process and keep everyone on schedule.
- Encourage information sharing – for functional leaders used to managing and controlling their own resources, collaborative leadership roles can be challenging and even a little mystifying. Experienced mentors who have already led profitable collaboration projects can help teach new collaborative leaders what it takes to succeed. Once they know the ropes, collaborative leaders can pass along their knowledge by guiding others, codifying their knowledge in wikis or other information sharing forums, and establishing guidelines to encourage useful collaborative activity.
Done right, collaboration can unleash latent creativity and help companies spur innovation and growth while fulfilling unmet customer needs.
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