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Leadership & Organisations

Collaborating for results

Karen Cho |

As much as we think that collaboration makes good business sense, there are times where it can go horribly wrong, so says Morten Hansen, a Professor of Entrepreneurship at INSEAD.

“Collaboration is fundamentally about working smarter. It's about increasing productivity,” he says.

“What I’ve seen a lot in my research is that companies and managers get it wrong. They try to collaborate more, but more is not always better,” adds Hansen, author of the new book ‘Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results.’

He cites the example of Sony, which had all the makings of a win-win company-wide collaboration.

“Sony had all the pieces; they've got the music division, they've got the electronics division, they've got the software division, they've got consumer goods, and they even supplied the batteries to the original iPod. So they've got all of the components."

“Yet when they tried to put the pieces together which they had in-house, they couldn't.  There was no culture of collaboration in that company.  In fact it was the opposite.  It was a culture of internal competition.”

Though Sony came up with Sony Connect, an iTunes-iPod hybrid, it turned out to be a failure because the individual departments did not work in unison. “It got terrible reviews … Had they had effective collaboration, the results would have been very different. And you can imagine Sony coming up with a very compelling product that could have competed against the iPod. But they were unable to do so.”

This failure is what Hansen terms 'collaborative traps' in his book. In the case of Sony, success was going to elude them anyway because they were trying to launch an ambitious collaboration project in a fundamentally hostile organisational environment – it went against the grain of company’s ultra competitive ethos.

Another trap which occurs at the other end of the continuum is over-collaboration. While initially promising, because people network and collaborate more frequently, there is nothing much to show in terms of results.

Hansen says the virtues of collaboration lead people to believe they could do no wrong by it. “So you start working on projects that in reality have marginal value. And once you have done them, you realise, ‘yes we did it well, but look, the results weren't that great’.  So that's a trap of overshooting the potential.”

So how can one achieve the right kind of collaboration that can maximise results? According to Hansen, there are three steps: first, be selective about projects earmarked for collaboration; second, identify the barriers to collaboration; and third, tailor the management interventions to those barriers after diagnosing what they are in the first place.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember here, is not to have the ends justify the means. Simply put, Hansen says: “The goal of collaboration is not collaboration itself. It is better results”.

Having said that, Hansen, whose research on this topic has spanned 15 years, says collaboration still remains key to succeeding in business, especially at a time like this. 

“The key is to do more with less – that’s an amazing challenge,” he told ABC News in the US recently. He adds: “Fiat and Chrysler need to merge now and once that deal is done, those engineers in Italy need to be able to work with those engineers in Detroit – that’s a formidable collaboration challenge that they have in front of them, and hopefully, they’ll be able to do it – Daimler was not able to do it so that’s not going to be a challenge.”

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