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Four Steps To Overcome Collaboration Obstacles

By Neville Hobson

A thoughtful feature in the Financial Times discusses the question of why in-house collaboration in organizations is so difficult, with the consequent impact on effective working.

The article highlights some accepted theories about this, including these:

[The first theory] is that most companies have "first generation organisation structures and second generation management capabilities". Internal synergies will only come with the right organisation structure - overlapping accountabilities for products, geographies and functions - and when managers have acquired the right skills and attitude - a "matrix in the mind of managers". Under this view, a company should restrict its ambitions until it has developed the appropriate structures and skills.

The second theory comes from authors such as Gary Hamel of London Business School and Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard. They say that most managers suffer from the "not-invented-here" syndrome, a character flaw that is amplified when they are given responsibility for divisions or business units. Hell-bent on making a success of their unit, they ig­nore links with other departments and reject anything they see as interference. The remedy, under this view, is to reduce the importance of structural units while drilling managers in collaborative behaviour and giving them incentives for co-operation.

The bold text is my emphasis. All of this rings a few bells for me from a previous work experience. So I like the argument of the author of the FT feature (Andrew Campbell, a director of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre) who sees an entirely different way of addressing this, and offers four steps managers can take to overcome collaboration obstacles:

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1. Managers should put more effort into calculating the size of the prize. This is not a question of broad concepts such as best practices or savings on group purchases. It needs to be a cost-benefit analysis of a tightly defined synergy opportunity.

2. Once the prize is clear, managers can investigate why collaboration is not already happening [and] go beyond broad concepts such as not-invented-here attitudes to understand why sensible managers are not doing what appears to be the sensible thing.

3. Once the reason for inaction is clear, managers can assess whether they have the skill and will to unblock the problem. Sometimes it requires hard choices in terms of restructuring or personnel changes, sometimes hands-on expertise on the part of managers.

4. Look out for downsides - distraction costs, contamination risks, loss of accountability, initiative and motivation. There is a dark side to collaboration that is all too apparent in some companies. In these organisations, it is politically correct to collaborate, regardless of the cost.

Campbell's conclusion is that by applying these four steps, senior managers can create synergies without the upfront investment implied by the current received wisdom and without the risks associated with blurred accountability and restructured organisations.

Financial Times | Why in-house collaboration is so difficult (paid sub)

About the Author:
Neville Hobson is the author of the popular blog which focuses on business communication and technology.

Neville is currentlly an independent communication practitioner helping companies build dynamic relationships with customers, employees, shareholders and other key audiences and influencers. Visit Neville Hobson's blog:

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