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Digital leaders understand the central role that cross-group collaboration plays in innovation and solving challenging problems. Yet most of us agree that collaboration isn’t easy. Harvard University researcher and Harvard Business School executive coach, Lisa Kwan, breaks down why this is the case. If you lead teams or organizations and want to hear about the common collaboration blind spots and barriers and how to overcome them, this is the podcast for you.
Collaboration is increasingly necessary for success in the modern day business. The problems our companies are being asked to solve are growing in complexity and so you're going to need more of those specialized pockets of knowledge integrated together to serve and solve those types of problems.
In terms of low hanging fruit of kind of collaboration challenges for leaders, I would say the two would be: time and priorities, and shared understanding about goals and especially what collaboration looks like for this particular interface.
We use the word collaboration on a lot of different activities that are just not the same thing. And so what that leads to is everyone operating on certain assumptions about what collaboration is in good faith and then finding that that other group is not a good collaborator because they're not collaborating how we're expecting them to collaborate.
Some signals I see in the companies that I work with are what I generally call counter collaborative behaviors. So groups will stall. They will do things to stall the initiative or they'll do things like data dumping, or excluding other groups from meetings that they need to be at, or making decisions that they shouldn't be making on their own. These are essentially a neon sign to stop, take a step back and figure out what is happening in this collaboration, what are some of the pieces that might be missing.
Lots of times collaboration between groups can be a threat to groups because they're actually asked to share this information that has kept them differentiated and important in the company or to give up their autonomy in certain ways.
A very critical thing is the leader needs to pay attention to what they're really asking for in the collaboration and address the fears and discomforts, etc, involved with that request. The awareness of a leader can go a long way.
Sam Massey: Digital leaders understand the central role that cross group collaboration plays in innovation and solving challenging problems. This episode features Kimberly Boyd from Thoughtworks chatting with Harvard University researcher and Harvard Business School executive coach Lisa Kwan about why collaboration isn't easy and how to overcome those common collaboration barriers. Enjoy.
Kimberly: Lisa, thanks for joining us here at Paradigm Shift. I know we've been talking a lot about collaboration and the importance of connection and collaboration as digital organizations are looking to accelerate value, and since you're an expert on all things collaboration, we're excited to have you here to go a little more in depth with us. Really wanted to start out and ask you why you believe that collaboration is the key to success for these modern digital businesses and why do you think that's kind of changed a lot over the past decade?
Lisa Kwan: So first of all, Kimberly, thanks so much for having me. Such a great opportunity to speak with you and also speak with your audience. In terms of the question of why collaboration is a key to success, especially for modern day businesses, if we think about it, collaboration between groups, that's always been a tension that even the earliest companies face. When a company or a family decided that they were going to sell something in town, et cetera, that's always been inherent to an organization and a company. And this tension in research, we understand it as differentiation and integration.
So differentiation is really specializing, being able to go deep and master a particular area, whether it's an industry or analytics or machine learning or anything else or marketing. But the issue is that companies also need to be able to integrate all this specialized knowledge to make their larger goals happen. Now to your question of has this need accelerated for the modern day business, the answer is yes and it's for at least three reasons. So first is it's no longer okay to most customers that you're only good at the one thing you do or that you only keep doing it the way you always have as a company, unless you are some elite Italian shoe maker in Sorento who makes fabulous shoes and everyone is happy. You don't have to go social, you don't have to do anything, just keep making those shoes.
So with this kind of changing customer demand, you need to at least either contextualize your offer, as in know enough about related fields or markets or technologies to what you're offering. That's what customers now expect. Or another thing is you may need to offer things in a new way, the social channels or maybe more customized, more personalized, et cetera. The second reason why collaboration is increasingly necessary for success in the modern day business is that the problems our companies are being asked to solve are growing in complexity and so you're going to need more of those specialized pockets of knowledge integrated together to serve and solve those types of problems. And then of course the third one is probably no surprise to your audience. The world is changing fast, and because of the pace of change, you're going to need to collaborate with experts to keep up.
So for example, companies often find themselves unable to wait for, say, their traditional media team to learn how to do the new social or digital media when they feel like they're already behind.
Kimberly: Wow. So yeah, all those things in total, right? It's really, I think, making the case now more than ever for why we need collaboration. I think someone said earlier today, the world's moving faster than it ever has and it's never going to be as slow as it is right now. So I think that makes the impetus to get together and figure out that connection and collaboration even more important. Can you talk a little bit about where leaders, where teams, where individuals really struggle? What would you say are kind of the top two challenges when it comes to collaboration that you've seen?
Lisa Kwan: Sure. So if I take this question in terms of quote unquote low hanging fruit of kind of collaboration challenges for leaders, I would say the two would be, one, time and priorities, and the other is around shared understanding about goals and especially what collaboration looks like for this particular interface. So first of all, time and priorities. I have to say that it pains me so much every time that I hear about companies having these amazing ideas and everyone's well intentioned. Everyone, for the most part. Everyone wants the best for the company, but it's just, "Okay, well, which team can do that or which teams can do that? Okay, give it to them." It's like, this team already has so much on their plate, and in the end, time is finite, the currency that teams have is time and attention. So in the end, they're forced to make trade offs that may not be the best ones for either the teams themselves and definitely not for the company either.
And then the second challenge around collaboration that I think can be quite quickly addressed by leaders who are aware of it is this aspect of shared understanding. So first, shared understanding of what the joint goals are. You would be shocked by how many groups, when you actually ask them what is the goal of this joint initiative, and they have radically different ideas.
Kimberly: Probably a little scary when you're a leader asking that question.
Lisa Kwan: Exactly. And then the other very critical thing is what is the understanding around what collaboration is supposed to look like in this project. Everyone, me included, we love to use the word collaboration. It's such a hot, sexy word, isn't it? Let's collaborate, we collaborate.
Kimberly: Data, digital transformation, and collaboration.
Lisa Kwan: Exactly. And so the result is that we use the word collaboration on a lot of different activities that are just not the same thing. And so what that leads to is everyone operating on certain assumptions about what collaboration is in good faith and then finding that that other group is not a good collaborator because they're not collaborating how we're expecting them to collaborate. And in fact, more than one company I've worked with has actually said that collaboration as a label can actually be weaponized in their company in that it's, "Hey, you didn't do this thing I asked you to do 10 minutes ago. You're not a collaborator." That's what this company is-
Kimberly: Don't use it as a threat, right?
Lisa Kwan: Yeah, exactly. And that's really not the intent. So I would say that explicit understanding at the start of an initiative and recalibrating again during an initiative between or among groups is very important.
Kimberly Boyd: Good ones, right, and I think ones that make a lot of sense. And I think especially important as enterprises are trying to scale, right? You were talking initially about how there's teams and then their go-to and everyone goes to them for everything and then they're in that prioritization cycle. But you need to bring other people in the boat with them, otherwise they're never going to have that multiplier that collaboration can bring.
So thinking of it from the leader's perspective, what are some of the things or key signs that leaders can be on the look out for to try to recognize when maybe some of these threats or challenges to collaboration are kind of creeping into their teams?
Lisa Kwan: Yeah, good question. Picking up signs is always one of the things we want to do sooner rather than later. When I think about that question, some immediate ones include you're going to see frustration, you're going to see resentment. Especially, let's go back to the low hanging fruit, when time and priorities aren't clear, aren't matched up and trade offs are being forced to make. Of course your groups, your team members are going to be frustrated. They're probably logging in a lot of extra time, probably not even getting acknowledgement that they're doing it because this is their job, do it. And then of course that can escalate into resentment. And also not having shared understanding between groups can, like I mentioned, people may start thinking, "Oh, that group's a terrible collaborator. They're never reliable," et cetera. And that can lead to more and more rooted ideas about one another that are not helpful for future collaborations either.
But all in all, I would say some signals I see in the companies that I work with are what I generally call counter collaborative behaviors. So groups will stall. They will do things to stall the initiative or they'll do things like data dumping, which is quite an interesting one because data dumping sometimes comes in the form of, "Look, we're collaborating. We're going to give all this data to the other group."
Kimberly: Thunk, here's your boxes full of files.
Lisa Kwan: Exactly. Yeah, and it's very clear that the other group has no way of understanding what this data means or how to parse through it, et cetera. But look, we're collaborating. And I've also seen groups excluding other groups from meetings that they need to be at or making decisions that they shouldn't be making on their own. There should be other input from other groups. So anyway, all of these, or even clusters of these are essentially a neon sign to stop, take a step back and figure out what is happening in this collaboration, what are some of the pieces that might be missing.
Kimberly: Is there anything that you've seen or kind of recall anecdotally that organizations or individuals have done kind of successfully to combat some of those behaviors you just talked about?
Lisa Kwan: I would say that it is very specific to the root cause of those behaviors. So for example, one area that I've actually done a little bit of writing about is the fact that lots of times collaboration between groups can be a threat to groups because they're actually asked to share this information that has kept them differentiated and important in the company or to give up their autonomy in certain ways. The critical thing is there are many reasons why a group might stall an initiative. It could be because they feel that it's taking away the value that they bring to an organization or it could just be, "Look, this is not something we do. We don't want to get involved with this. This is not us. We don't want to do this."
So to be able to diagnose, you go to what is the root cause first, then you can take steps to address it. I don't think I actually answered your question in terms of someone turning around that stalling, but essentially you can say ... Oh, well, let's say a group says, "This is not what we do." I have seen companies where savvy leaders have been like, "Okay, we recognize this. How is this related to what the group does?" And so they reframe it like, "Oh, you're the innovation team and now you have to go talk to customers. Well, you're really going out there to get new ideas to innovate some more while serving a different purpose." But you can start addressing things if you know what the root cause is.
Kimberly: Reframing is an incredibly powerful tool when used properly. Just so we don't leave people feeling that it's a hopeless endeavor to try to tackle and succeed when it comes to collaboration, what in your experience are the ingredients for successful collaboration? Where can leaders really start to cultivate these?
Lisa Kwan: I can answer this question in two ways. One is in terms of the system's perspective, as in what's actually happening in the collaboration as a system or in the organization as a system, and from the leader perspective, which is what can the leader do. The first, in terms of the system's perspective, I would say that the conditions that I discussed at the Thoughtworks 2019 Paradigm Shift conference are where I would start. So if leaders have an awareness or a framework of where to look and they prioritize the time to diagnose, that's a huge step.
Now, one of the problems with collaboration is that it's an inherently unwieldy phenomenon. So sometimes, I don't know if you have this, but friends or an acquaintance might say to you, regarding let's say a colleague or even a spouse, "I just don't understand him or she's so complicated." Well, you think one person's complex, put them in groups and then put those groups together and that gives you-
Kimberly: Multiply that complexity.
Lisa Kwan: Exactly. And that gives you a better illustration of what I mean by unwieldiness of collaboration. There's so many things happening, so many people involved, et cetera, and then you have the history of the groups layered on top of that, et cetera. So there's the environment the collaboration is in, the how or the process of the collaboration, the content of the collaboration, and then the social psychological aspects.
And so a leader needs to ... I like to say they need to have proprioception on all of these or at least at the start of a collaboration and then checking in at various time points throughout. So check in, what is the environment of collaboration? Is it supportive? Do they have what they need? Are things clear in terms of the process? And then the content of the collaboration, is everyone on the same page? And then finally, the social psychological is ...
Kimberly: Proprioception, I don't know if I know that word.
Lisa Kwan: Ah, okay. Proprioception is ... So athletes, for example, or everyone really, proprioception is your ability to be aware of your body parts in space.
Kimberly: Oh, your spatial awareness. Gotcha.
Lisa Kwan: Exactly. So your limbs and collaboration has a lot of limbs.
Kimberly: We should all be the Michael Jordan of our proprioception collaboration. Or pick your own, pick your sport and favorite athlete.
Lisa Kwan: Yes. We want some slam dunks from the podcast audience here.
Kimberly: Well, Lisa, thanks so much for chatting with us on all things collaboration. I just had one more question. If there's an organization or a leader that's kind of struggling with collaboration, if they could focus or take away one thing to help them kickstart their efforts, what would you kind of frame that as for them?
Lisa Kwan: So for leaders who are driving collaborations for strategic change ... So let's position it, so I'll just scope it down to that. I would say that a very critical thing is the leader needs to pay attention to what they're really asking for in the collaboration and address the fears and discomforts, et cetera, involved with that request. Because collaboration, especially involving a lot of change, of course triggers fears. We're all human, so triggers fear in the people and of course the groups that they're in as groups. We're social animals. So that is one thing that leaders often overlook because it is so quote unquote basic. That's where I would say to start. The awareness of a leader can go a long way.
Kimberly: Yeah, right. We get what we ask for. So I like that, be really thoughtful about what you're even asking for to set it all up for success.
Lisa Kwan: Yeah.
Kimberly: All right, Lisa, thanks so much for joining us today. If folks are interested in learning more, can you tell us where they might go to find out a little more information?
Lisa Kwan: Sure. Thanks, Kimberly. So you can find me at my website, which is www.lisakwanphd.com. So that's Lisa, L-I-S-A, Kwan, K-W-A-N, phd.com, and there people can see what I'm up to, things that I've been writing or thinking about, and also sign up for a newsletter, which comes out a couple times a year with evidence-based thoughts and sparkler ideas to get people's thoughts going.
Kimberly: Wonderful. I know I'll look forward to checking them out and I'm sure our listeners will as well. Thanks so much again.
Lisa Kwan: Thank you.
Kimberly Boyd: Thanks for listening today. If you enjoyed what you heard, we encourage you to rate and subscribe wherever you get your podcast.