“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” Henry Ford

We have an innovation crisis in Australia and collaboration is critical in addressing it.

As a nation we face unprecedented structural change, falling productivity and a leadership drought. The public grief at the death of Gough Whitlam – a towering change agent credited with dragging Australia into the modern era – testifies to our yearning for strong, visionary leadership.

The management approaches that helped produce Australia’s current prosperity no longer work and the big end of town is struggling for a new narrative. The rhetoric around collaboration – a key enabler of innovation – is inescapable.

Yet few organisations do it well, and even fewer manage to exploit opportunities that require cross-sector collaboration. According to The Australian, only about five per cent of Australian business currently turn to the higher education sector – including scientists and researchers – directly for expertise and ideas.

If you work in large organisations, you’ve probably experienced the disconnect between the message to ‘drive change’ and organisational incentives to pull your head in. As a result, workers tune out and leaders lose the incalculable creative and discretionary efforts of their biggest asset: their people.

Collaboration is loosely defined as two or more people working together on a shared goal. While it sounds simple, it can be fiendishly frustrating. Here are three common reasons why collaboration fails.

1. Poor leadership.
People take their cues from the top. It’s naïve to believe grassroots efforts will succeed without direct support from leaders. Sadly, few executive management teams role model and reward the collaborative behaviours they say they want to embed in the culture.

“Many executives realise they need a new playbook for this hyperconnected environment,” say collaboration researchers Herminia Ibarra and Morten T Hansen. “Those who climbed the corporate ladder in silos while using the ‘command and control’ style can have a difficult time adjusting to the new realities.”

Collaboration is as much a mindset as a skillset and demands a very different approach to leading and managing. It requires an understanding of complexity and the way different parts of a dynamic system interact. It needs mature operators who take an end-to-end view and support diversity, robust decision-making and accountability that cuts across organisational boundaries, something that makes traditional leaders highly uncomfortable.

2. Collaborating on everything.
A common misconception about collaboration is that it works for every issue, big and small. International research into management and organisational behaviour suggests otherwise. Some problems are best solved through a standard hierarchical approach.

“Too often people will try to collaborate on everything and wind up in endless meetings, debating ideas and struggling to find consensus,” Ibarra and Hansen caution. “They can’t reach decisions and execute quickly. Collaboration becomes not the oil greasing the wheel but the sand grinding it to a halt.”

Highly collaborative cultures tend to have clear principles around decision-making and feedback loops, an understanding of the types of projects and issues that require broad involvement, and mechanisms to ensure the right buy-in at the right time – and to wind up efforts once the job is done.

3. Impatience.
Beware leaders who talk about ‘quick wins’ and collaboration in the same breath. Unless an organisational culture is high-trust and highly agile, collaboration can be time-consuming. Identifying root causes – diagnosing the problem behind the problem – is often complex. Short-term thinking, convoluted reporting lines, resource constraints and territorial turf wars are typical underlying issues that might need to be surfaced and addressed before progressing on the original objective.

To embed collaboration as a way of working requires courageous leaders willing to allow their people to invest the time and effort required. Setting clear expectations on processes and outcomes, and knowing when to wield influence rather than authority, is critical. Many collaborative efforts are derailed by leaders intervening at the wrong times on the wrong issues. On the other hand, sometimes it’s appropriate to shut down unproductive discussions, end internal bickering and yes, make a decision.

Whether we like it or not, collaboration is the only way to get things done in a networked economy increasingly focused on creativity and innovation. And for all its frustrations, it works. Collaboration has been behind some of society’s greatest advances, and it continues to rewrite how we live and work. For Australian organisations, it’s a great untapped opportunity.

Image: Zoltan Bekefy