Morten T. Hansen: An interview by Bob Morris

Morten T. Hansen

Hansen is a professor at University of California, Berkeley, and at INSEAD, France. He was previously a professor at Harvard Business School for a number of years. Prior to joining Harvard University, Hansen obtained his Ph.D. from the business school at Stanford University. In addition to his academic career, Hansen was a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group in the London, Stockholm and San Francisco offices. He was part of the research teams for the international best-selling books Built to Last and Good to Great. Hansen’s research on collaboration has won several prestigious awards, including the best article awards from Sloan Management Review and Administrative Science Quarterly, the leading academic journal in the field. Several of his Harvard Business Review articles have been bestsellers for a number of years. He regularly consults with companies on collaboration and gives keynotes at leadership conferences. His new management book is Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results, was published by Harvard Business Press. A native of Norway, Hansen holds a Master’s degree in finance from London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in Business Administration from Stanford University where he was a Fulbright scholar.

Morris: Before discussing your recently published book, Collaboration, a few general questions. First, please explain how you became involved with Jim Collins and the research that preceded the publication of Built to Last, which he co-authored with Jerry Porras. Also, what were your responsibilities?

Hansen: I was working at BCG and was looking for an interesting project for a year to put to use the Fulbright scholarship that I had obtained. A project at Stanford called “visionary companies” caught my eyes. It looked really interesting, so I called Jerry Porras and joined that project for a year to work on some of the case studies in the data set. That project turned into “Built to Last.”

Morris: You continued that association prior to the publication of Good to Great. During the course of your involvement in the research for both books, were there any head-snapping revelations? If so, what were they and what did you learn from each?

Hansen: Jim Collins and I have stayed close friends ever since. We enjoy discussing problems and tackling big questions on management. Jim embarked on the Good to Great research project and I provided some advice, especially on methods. I think it is a very rigorous project with sound methods. I think one revelation post-publication is interesting: you can become great, then lose it quite quickly, especially in turbulent times. Some people—mistakenly—think that the findings of what makes a company go from good to great are invalidated if the companies then fall back to good (or worse, bankrupt). But that does not make sense: greatness, once attained, can be quickly lost. We see that in all walks of life and in the arts, for example. The great opera singer Maria Callas turned great, then lost her top notch performance prematurely. But she was still great before that, for a while. Greatness may be a bit like trust: it takes a lot of hard work to build, but it can quickly evaporate if you’re not diligent all the time. Jim has documented this really well in his new small book, How the Mighty Fall. It looks at how greatness can be lost, or perhaps more importantly, how a slide can be avoided and corrected before it is too late.

What this shows is that greatness is a complicated and fascinating topic that requires many studies to understand. Jim and I are writing a new book on the topic, asking an additional question: how do you become great in an uncertain and unforgiving world?

Morris: Knowledge management is a subject of special interest to me. Hence this question: What are codification and personalization of information and why is each important?

Hansen: That’s a great question, Bob. It strikes at the heart of IT systems and social media in companies. Some information can be captured in writing without losing its meaning (e.g., a map telling you how to get somewhere). The power of that is that the information therein can be decoupled from the author and disseminated electronically, to everyone, across the world. In contrast, some information is highly tacit, meaning it cannot be fully articulated and certainly not in writing (e.g., knowing how to ride a bike). That requires practice, mentorship, instruction, and detailed explanation. Tacit knowledge requires direct person-to-person contact (personalization) to be transferred properly. That’s why we need interpersonal relationships and networks. Now, some of those could be done online, as when an expert surgeon uses tele-medicine to beam into the operating room remotely to provide advice to another surgeon. But it still requires a direct personal link.

Morris: Several years ago, you wrote an article that appeared in Harvard Business Review in which you discussed the “networked incubator.” Here are two separate but related questions: What is it, and, to what extent is this model compatible with the “open” business models that Henry Chesbrough and others advocate?

Hansen: As you know, Hank and I were co-authors on that article. The ideas of a networked incubator and open innovation are quite similar. Hank has taken those ideas much further since then and has done a great job in articulating the idea of open innovation (in fact, coining the term). The essence of a networked incubator is to draw upon ideas from outside a startup team, such as technologies, customer access, and so on. An incubator is basically an organization that helps startups do that, but other forms of organizations do the same. Good venture capitalists help their startups access those resources, as do a good new business development function inside a large company.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most common reasons for the failure of business teams?

Hansen: There is no one reason why business teams fail. Academic research reveals a number of factors, including lack of a clear objective, infighting, poor talent, and so on. Another reason is insulation: teams oftentimes ought to reach out and work with others, yet they fail to do so. For example, they may suffer from the not-invented-here syndrome, believing that people outside the team have anything to contribute. So they don’t collaborate, and they sometimes do worse as a result. 

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Collaboration. Please explain the statement, “Bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration.”

Hansen: Many times business teams can choose whether to go it alone or reach out and work with others. It’s alluring to reach out because others may possess what you don’t have, such as good technology and customer relationships. But if you’re inept at collaborating, those collaborative efforts turn sour, leading to haggling and fighting over goals. In those cases, many teams end up doing worse than similar teams that did not collaborate. It’s not just that they wasted time collaborating; they did worse. I have statistical evidence for this: for example, in one study of more than 150 teams we showed statistically that new product development teams with poor collaboration were 30% slower to market than teams with no collaboration.

Morris: What is “disciplined collaboration” and why is it so important to organizational effectiveness?

Hansen: It’s a myth out there that collaboration is always a good idea. Many times it is not. More collaboration is not better. But still leaders preach collaboration, believing that if their employees collaborated more they would do better. My book argues against this. I argue there is a right way and a wrong way to collaborate. To get value from collaboration, you need to instill what I call disciplined collaboration. There are really two parts to it: first, decide whether and where there is an upside by collaborating (and where not). It can be in innovation, cross-selling, or efficiency efforts. The discipline here is to rigorously assess the potential. If there is none, then don’t collaborate. Second, make the organization able to collaborate, so that people can do it without friction. That involves spotting the barriers to collaboration in your particular situation (different organizations have different barriers), and then designing management solutions to tear those barriers down. Now you have disciplined collaboration: targeted upside and targeted management.

Morris: You identify six collaboration “traps” into which many companies fall. For those who have not as yet read your book, what are they? How to avoid or escape from them?

Hansen: Let me mention a couple of traps. A very counter-intuitive one is over-collaboration: people collaborate too much. They go to meetings of questionable value and sit on committees with no compelling business objectives. This happens because managers tell them that collaboration is a good thing, so they ought to do more of it. Then there is the trap of designing the wrong solution to promote collaboration: IT managers implement an IT system or a social media tool to help people connect and search better. But oftentimes search is not the key barrier; people instead are not willing to collaborate. It’s a motivational barrier, not a search problem, and IT solutions will not help much.

Morris: To me, one of your most important points is the book is that everyone involved in a given organization must collaborate on developing the leadership that is needed at all levels and in all areas. You do not advocate a democracy; rather, a meritocracy. Is that a fair assessment?

Hansen: An organization that wants to excel at collaboration needs collaborative leaders at all levels, from the CEO, to vice presidents, down to team leaders and then to supervisors on the shop floor. But collaborative leadership is not the same as consensus, democracy, and being nice. Rather, it is a leadership style that lies somewhere in between autocratic decision making, on one extreme, and consensus, on the other. The hallmark of collaborative leadership is to transcend your own narrow agenda and self-interests to reach out to find common ground and compromise with others to get things done. I think President Obama does a pretty good job at this; he tries to reach out to the other side. Some will say he may have gone to far in the direction of striving for consensus, tilting toward that one extreme and being too accommodating. Perhaps.

Morris: Given the recent emergence and rapid growth of social networks, what is their significance to “disciplined collaboration”? For example, how can they support and extend participation?

Hansen: Social media has great potential for companies. But, we must ask the same question for online collaboration as I have for “offline” collaboration: what is the business value? Are you doing social media at work for the sake of it, or does it enhance results?  Remember, the goal of collaboration is not collaboration, but producing better results.

The other key point with regard to social media is to understand that these online tools only solve some of the collaboration problems in a company; they help people connect (search) and work together (transfer) but they do not help with motivational barriers. When people are unwilling to work together, perhaps because they see each other as rivals, there are no social media that will further collaboration. In this case you will first need to get people self-motivated to work together.

Morris: Recent research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University suggests that, in effect, talent is overrated. Of course it’s important as are highly developed skills but effective teams also have what sports team coaches call “chemistry.” Your own thoughts about all this?

Hansen: The bigger picture here is that we’re in an economic era during which most work is done collectively—no one person, no one genius, no one company operates in isolation. That means that great performance is increasingly a result of great collaboration.  Sport teams have always known this, of course. But in business we have often thought that individual talent is what matters. Talent still matters a great deal, I believe, but great performance in business needs individual performance and disciplined collaboration. Both count.

Morris: Please describe the person who would be most attractive to other individuals as well as groups that are seeking a collaborator.

Hansen: Seek out people who have something to contribute. Seek out people who have an open mind, who are open to compromise, who aspire to common goals. Stay away from people who push their own agenda above all else.

Morris: What is “T-shaped management” and what is its relevance to effective collaboration?

Hansen: I believe T-shaped people are the future of work.  Simply put, they can do two things well: they know how to do their own individual job really well (the vertical part of the T), and they know how to work well with others (the horizontal part of the T). They are specialists and but also sufficiently generalists to be able to work with others. Take scientists. We need experts—people who know their own scientific field really well. But if that is all they know and all they want to focus on, then they cannot easily work with scientists in other fields. They are only “I” shaped if you will. They need to have the skills and the motivation to work with others. That means that they need to know a little bit about scientific fields other than their own.

T-shaped people are the future in management, science, and engineering–in any field of knowledge work. You see leading companies like IBM and IDEO, the design firm, adopt T-shaped management.

Morris: What is a “nimble” network? Why is it desirable for it to be one?

Hansen: Again, you need to be disciplined about networking. You can spend all day networking if you’re not careful. It becomes an end in itself, not a means. The idea is to have an effective—a nimble—network, not just a big one where you know a lot of people. Changes are inevitable. The network must be able to respond effectively to them in a timely manner.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single greatest challenge to establishing and then sustaining a nimble network? How to overcome it?

Hansen: Diverse networks. The opposite is narrow networks.  By narrow I mean that people tend to hang out with people like themselves—people in the same office, of the same age, from the same background, in the same industry, and so on. They have a narrow network. But the best networks are diverse. You need to broaden a network, and you can do that by reaching out and forging connections with people different from yourself, people who know different things, think differently. That’s challenging, for some people perhaps even threatening, because you need to lift up your head and look more broadly and get out of your comfort zone.

Morris: Based on your extensive experience with all manner of organizations, what do you think is the single most important point about effective collaboration that most business leaders do not seem to understand?

Hansen: The single biggest challenge for business leaders is to get away from the conventional thinking that collaboration is always, indeed necessarily a good thing. They need to stop preaching that people should collaborate and instead adopt the principle of disciplined collaboration.

Morris: Which question do you wish you had been asked during this interview – but weren’t — and what is your response to it?

Hansen: None, great questions!

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Hansen invites you to check out the resources at

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