The Collaboration Continuum

Executive Summary: Many companies are implementing digital transformation projects to help them stay competitive as the need to harness the latest technology and access real-time analytics becomes paramount.  However, high visibility and costly projects such as these need the right level of collaboration to ensure the project gets off the ground, is managed well and fully adopted.  This article will help define and provide clarity based on research, interviews, and practical real-world experience on how to create the right collaboration mix for your organization.


Whether your team progressed as far as you would have liked in the 2018 World Cup or not, it seems as if all the soccer (Futbol) pundits at least agree that this year’s competition has produced some of the greatest matches and surprises. How is it that many smaller countries have been able to progress so far and win against “superior” opponents? In the world of sports, we attribute it to teamwork – “work done by several associates with each doing a part (Webster’s Dictionary).” In business, we like to call this collaboration – “to work jointly with others or together (Webster’s Dictionary).”

In many organizations, collaboration is a Core Value and becomes part of employees annual assessment – the ability to work together to achieve more than one could accomplish on their own. It is becoming more valuable in the digital age where agile development has replaced more traditional SDLC (Software Development Life Cycle) processes and realizing the benefits of digital transformation is accomplished by connecting business leaders across an organization. According to research by Benjamin Jones, strategy professor at Northwestern Management School of Business, “collaboration is necessary because our individual knowledge base is becoming more and more specialized, and working with people who have different perspectives or areas of expertise can result in better ideas and outcomes.”

Collaboration is critically important to an organization’s success measured by financial contribution, launching new products, winning new or retaining existing clients, and the retention of a strong & connected work force. When we take overarching organizational goals and break them down into successful projects, collaboration is more readily seen when multiple perspectives are taken into consideration; people are excited about having a voice and sharing insight, all of which leads to a greater probability of success and a higher adoption rate of new processes, products, and projects.

The challenge with classifying anything is there are always the exception to the rule, or some new discovery in the animal world that even requires a whole new species; however, it is helpful to find some boarder categories and then recognize that people by their own personal style can deviate from the norm of the organization, which can have either positive or negative impact. There are also both positive and negative attributes to the type or style of collaboration. The tone does come from the top.

We will explore how collaboration is manifested in different organizations:

  1. Top-Down organizations and limited collaboration
  2. Flat organizations and consensus collaboration
  3. Matrixed organizations and balanced collaboration


 1. Top-down organizations: Limited Collaboration has a limiting effect on project success

First, consider Limited Collaboration which usually exists in very top-down driven organizations where there are well defined roles, inflexible / silo hierarchies, push down goals and objectives, and limited communication and interaction between the levels of management and the work force. This approach can be successful in certain situations but the level of collaboration typically has a direct impact on the likelihood of success for initiatives, projects, and ongoing organizational activities and it is important to recognize how it can limit the contributions of participants.  Keys to successful collaboration in this setting include:

  • Proper goal setting: For example, goals & objectives are very important, but when only pushed down unilaterally to the individual contributor vs. actively engaging and soliciting input from the associates, how much buy-in is achieved? Maybe the goals do not challenge the person, or they are so challenging that the goal becomes the only focus instead of allowing for time to be spent on innovation or process change management that would benefit more than simply achieving one goal.
  • Look to Simplify: Limited Collaboration also inhibits needed influence on successful projects and the need for simplification and the reduction of complexity. The knowledge of the individual contributor within a process and their desire and ability to contribute to the future state solution cannot be ignored.
  • Consider the scenario: There are certainly times where this type of structure is needed. For example, a hospital might have a very collaborative environment when focusing on techniques to prevent the spread of viruses, or processes to streamline the intake of patients. When a patient in crisis arrives in the Emergency Room, however, the need for control and top down decision making is critical in saving the life of a patient.
  • Consider the project: That said, however, staying in this state on a long-term basis is stressful and not sustainable. The same is very true in most companies where Limited Collaboration might work for a while, but is limiting and likely detrimental in the long-run by not allowing people to have a voice in change.
  • Collaboration should increase if impact of project is high: It is still true today that many projects fail to achieve their expected results due to poor execution and adoption (a byproduct of poor change management). This has a direct correlation to the lack of involvement / collaboration that needs to live within any change effort. The pace of change continues to accelerate and the corresponding need to collaborate must increase at the same pace.

2. Flat organizations: Consensus Collaboration can be inclusive, but inefficient

In William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind, says “Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?” which is how Consensus Collaboration or Unlimited Collaboration performs – the second type of Collaboration. While we now understand the shortfalls of very limited collaboration, we also need to recognize that indeed too much of a good thing can have negative consequences for people and organizations. Keys to successful collaboration in this setting include:

  • Consider timelines: Collaboration is important in gathering input / data when redesigning an internal process; therefore, having an efficient and effective methodology used helps determine the timeliness and cost of the input. Without setting time boundaries, organizations can get stuck in the starting block – “Perfect is the enemy of good.” – Voltaire
  • Collaboration does not equate to consensus: Confusing the two constructs can result in negative consequences such as complete paralysis and inaction on necessary change initiatives, a missed new go-to market opportunity, or the impact on employee motivation to innovate when they witness great ideas that are continually not acted upon.
  • Look at Leadership: Unlimited Collaboration is likely the result of weak leadership. Good decisions are most often guided by good information analysis. The CFO of a global firm said that there is a cost to data acquisition which is insightful and informs decision-making, but that cost becomes completely wasteful if it does not help lead to a decision. Viewing an opportunity from multiple perspectives, and gathering all the information on alternatives is commendable, but in the end leaders needs to stand up and make a decision. Use the value of collaboration and trust the collaborators!


3. Matrixed Organizations: Balanced Collaboration fosters empowerment and innovation

What we need today is to embrace more of a “Balanced” approach to collaboration. We work in a highly connected world with people who are incredibly bright and are far removed from the mold of simply being “order takers.”   We need to use the power of collaboration to move our organizations forward, to foster a spirit of innovation, and encourage progress by empowering people to succeed in their personal and corporate careers.

“Balanced” Collaboration does not mean that all flowers bloom, that every idea is actionable, and should be implemented. There are two key differentiators in a balanced approach over the previously mentioned types of collaboration.

  • First, get people involved: When considering a new project, or a process change, engage those who currently work the process or will be impacted by the new project to gain their perspective and understanding. Start with a wider audience and know you can always prioritize the participation of various constituents as you move along the journey. Use surveys and questionnaires to find the experts who can then be part of a smaller focus or user group. Avoid the tendency just to use people who are recommended because they were part of another initiative as not all projects / initiatives are the same or just because someone was a strong contributor on one project does not mean they bring the same level of expertise to the next opportunity. Starting broad allows for finding new people, fresh perspectives, and depth of knowledge. Then allow for narrowing the group so it is agile enough to come to consensus and make recommendations.
  • Secondly, executive leadership needs to trust the process and support the outcome: Strong governance should allow for proper questioning of assumptions, leveraging the collective knowledge of an executive committee, and providing feedback to the initiative team and leaders. This is the balance of collaboration across the organization – the executive team, the project team and leaders, and the subject experts from all areas of the organization where differentiated perspectives are heard and respected and a recommendation is acted upon.

Limited Collaboration does not involve people in the process and Unlimited Collaboration typically fails to act on new initiatives, while Balanced Collaboration trusts people, the well governed process, and encourages more innovation along the journey.


Conclusion: High-achieving organizations are highly collaborative

Returning to the opening thought on the 2018 World Cup and most team sports in general, let’s applaud their honest evaluations (for the most part) after winning or losing. The outcome is quickly attributed to the team with statements such as “We were very organized today and played as a team”, or “Today, we did not have the energy and focus as a team to win the match.” The entire sporting organization from the coach (CEO, project manager, team lead), the trainers (different organization functional groups), and the players (subject matter experts) all play a role in the success of the team. The same is true in business today.

Every organization and internal team falls somewhere within the spectrum of collaboration discussed from the perspectives presented above…Limited (Top Down, Unlimited (Consensus) or Balanced. Continuous improvement is one great attribute of successful organizations. Evaluate where you are as an organization, access the degree of collaboration, and course correct where necessary. High achieving organizations are highly collaborative. Collaboration is an observable, thriving, and connective energy that propels people forward. There is an old proverb that says, success comes from listening to many advisors – Today, we call it collaboration!

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