The Real Power of Collaboration

At a few conferences we’ve spoken at lately, we’ve been asked, “What are the skills of collaboration?” This is a great question, because we’re also seeing collaboration appear on the lists of competencies employees are expected to develop as they progress in an organization. Collaboration isn’t a skill. It isn’t teamwork and it isn’t a technology. It’s a purposeful way of working intended to gain access to and leverage valuable resources in pursuit of objectives. And that’s the real power – the ability to access and utilize the knowledge, expertise, relationships, and other resources of people in ways that benefit and help achieve the objectives of all concerned.

We’ve just written a new article that introduces three principles of collaboration and defines ten competencies required to work collaboratively. Let us know what you think. Do you agree with us? Over the summer, we taught this way of thinking and acting in several executive education programs and management workshops. Our Collaborating to Win™ Assessment provides a powerful metric to use to guide your efforts. If your organization needs to improve its way of working, we can customize a program for you.

Hail to the Global Collaborator-in-Chief!

As we listened to Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly it was clear achieving the four pillars he believes are “fundamental to the future that we want for our children: non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people,” require a significant level of global collaboration. And, if you will, it sounded as if he was lobbying for an additional job title, Global Collaborator-in-Chief.

Clearly, Obama appreciates the need for collaboration between and among nations, “it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 -- more than at any point in human history -- the interests of nations and peoples are shared…and now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.” Make no mistake about it; Obama is spot on in recognizing that these are complex challenges requiring complex solutions. Solutions rooted in global collaboration. Despite the obvious problems to be dealt with in getting each national government to understand that it is in its individual interests to help others be successful, reaching such commonality is not without precedent.

Last night at an ASAP New England Chapter event, Brian Clark of Progress Software opened his presentation on “Coopetition” and Strategic Alliances with a famous picture of Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. He asked what the three had in common. Yes, they had a common enemy, but Brian also pointed out that they had in common their differences – different views of their role in the world, different ideologies, etc.

While finding commonality in the differences among nations is absolutely necessary, it is not sufficient. Achieving Obama’s four pillars requires cross-sector collaboration as well. That is, in addition to governments, these challenges require collaboration with business, academia, and NGO sectors of the global economy. Bridging these sectors increases the complexity of the solution.

Fortunately, we’re not starting with a clean sheet of paper. There are several models to study, including the William J. Clinton Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and The Alliance for Climate Protection, to name a few. Although each is different and don’t encompass all of the stakeholders Obama’s pillars would embrace, they nevertheless provide examples to learn what works and what doesn’t in pursuit of cross-sector global collaboration.

Barack Obama, the Global Collaborator-in-Chief, has challenged the United Nations General Assembly – and by extension every sector of society – to open a new era of partnership and collaboration to build his four pillars. The understanding developed by the alliance management profession of how to succeed in collaborative work is a tremendous asset to be put to use in developing the complex solutions required.

The Spigot Is Flowing - Advantage, Alliance Management

It hard to miss the continuous stream of merger and acquisition announcements in the headlines lately. Whether it’s Dell buying Perot Systems, Pfizer buying Wyeth, buying, or EMC buying Data Domain, the pace of acquisitions has once again quickened. Apparently, companies are finding it easier to raise the millions or billions of dollars needed to finance their shopping spree.

As is always the case, the requisite press releases tout all the synergies that will be realized by making this or that acquisition. Unfortunately, the business landscape is littered with failed acquisitions. The reality is that most acquisitions and mergers fail. So, despite all the chest pounding and rosy press announcements about the gains that consolidation and economies of scale will bring, the majority of acquisitions across all industry sectors do not live up to their promises.

Let me be clear, I’m not against purposeful, strategic acquisitions. Quite the contrary. If carefully thought through and the rose colored glasses are tucked away, a well timed and carefully planned acquisition can provide significant benefit for all stakeholders. However, what concerns me is the very real challenge companies face integrating the acquired company into its going forward operations. Study after study of both successful and failed acquisitions show that to get it right, senior management must pay particular attention to integrating two cultures, communicating continuously, and building trust and transparency.

What’s interesting is that many companies have the expertise needed to get acquisition integration right – they just aren’t using it for that purpose – yet. Alliance managers are uniquely suited to guide their organizations through the challenging integration process. No other function in an organization has it as its charge to overcome organizational differences and get two companies to work as one. That is their job.

The opportunity for alliance management is to seize this immediate business need and to catapult into the strategic imperative of successfully integrating acquisitions. As the pace of acquisitions once again quickens, those who are skilled at bridging silos, connecting the right people, and avoiding implementation failures have an important new role to take on.

Summoning Lincoln

Attendees at last week’s greaterthan > conference were treated to a brief but poignant talk by Maine’s former Governor, Angus King. Noting the challenges of our current times, he echoed the words Abraham Lincoln used during some of the darkest days of the Civil War, “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion.”

The Greater Than Conference focused on using partnership and collaboration among four sectors – business, NGOs, government, and academia – to solve the complex issues of our world especially those related to sustainability and economic growth. Gov. King’s challenge to all present was to break with traditional ways of approaching such complexity and create new solutions. What was unsaid was that if partnering and collaboration were to be the way forward, the definition of an organization is changing.

We are in a time of a dynamic transformation in the way business is done. As Peter Drucker observed 10 years ago, the corporation as we know it is fading away. In its place, the collaborative network is emerging. In spite of the magnitude of this change, too many people lack a good understanding of what a collaborative network is, how it functions, and what differentiates between person to person collaboration and collaboration amongst a network of organizations.

The management philosophy, strategies, and models that served us well in the last half of the 20th Century are not what is needed to grow and succeed in the 21st Century. Sure, many CEOs and other business leaders recognize that siloed, hierarchical structures need to give way to more collaborative ways of working, but most admit that it is neither achieved nor realized in their organizations. The disconnect between what is said and the reality of what is happening points to a need for a dramatic, fundamental shift in ways of thinking, acting, relating, interacting, working, and managing. Most simply, to innovate and succeed organizations not only need a specialized expertise; they need a collaborative capability.

We’re still in the early days of acknowledging the fundamental transformation in organization structures and ways of working and managing. Collaborative networks are not a management concept du jour. It isn’t another change initiative that can be ignored until it goes away. Only a collaborative network has the capital, capacity, and expertise required to take on the complex, major challenges of our time – be it reducing the energy wasted in the chip manufacturing process or feeding the world’s poor or stemming the spread of swine flu. As Lincoln so eloquently expressed “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

Impressions of the Greater Than Conference

It’s really an exciting time. It seems that every day there’s another article or blog about the critical role collaboration is playing in helping organizations succeed. A really good example was the two-day—July 27 & 28—inaugural greaterthan > conference held in Portland, Maine (see The conference attracted about 200 people and focused on the new models of collaboration between corporations, non-profit organizations, institutions of higher learning and governmental agencies to promote innovative solutions to the complex challenges we face, at home and around the world.

To be honest, we were thrilled that the gathering was even taking place. As many of you know, we’ve been on a mission for the past 10 years writing and speaking about collaborative networks based on our research and consulting activities assisting organizations as they’ve transitioned to collaborative business models. Everyone we spoke with at the conference had a hunger to learn as much as they could about how to help their organizations achieve its objectives while at the same time transforming how work gets done.

The anecdotes were as vivid as they were compelling. Whether listening to the Greensburg, Kansas EF5 tornado recovery story or how to create pathways out of poverty or growing vegetables to feed the poor in the Congo or how to build partnerships to save the planet — it’s clear that multi-sector collaboration is the secret sauce in making all this possible.

We were delighted to be a sponsor and to speak to the group about how to successfully construct partnerships and manage collaboration. We stressed the need to manage the work of the collaboration AND manage the collaboration. And while not easy to do, it nevertheless must be done.

The metamorphosis has begun. There is no doubt that we are in a time of profound transformation in ways of working, creating value, structuring and managing organizations. The good news is that gatherings like the greaterthan > conference help to create the understanding and ability to succeed.