Smart Collaboration: A book review by Bob Morris

Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos
Heidi K. Gardner
Harvard Business Review Press (January 2017)

How to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which smart collaboration is most likely to thrive

As I began to work my way through this book, I was again reminded of another, Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results, in which Morten Hansen explains how “disciplined collaboration” can help to enable leaders to avoid or free themselves from various traps, create unity of commitment and effort, and “reap big results.” He asserts, “bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration.” Why? Here are two of several reasons. First, bad collaboration never achieves the aforementioned “big results”; worse yet, bad collaboration makes good collaboration even more difficult to plan and then achieve. With regard to the “traps,” Hansen identifies six in the first chapter and then suggests that there are three steps to disciplined collaboration. That is, the “the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required.”

Heidi Gardner focuses her attention on more than a dozen professional service firms in which the greatest asset is the expertise of their principals. “The most important challenge faced by any such organization is bringing that collective expertise to bear on the problems that, increasingly, are so complicated and so sophisticated that no single expert – no matter how smart or hardworking – is in a position to solve them.”

What’s needed are interdisciplinary teams of experts “work together to integrate their separate knowledge bases and skill sets to forge coherent, unified solutions. They have to collaborate, in efficient and effective ways. I call this smart collaboration.”

I cannot recall a prior time when there was greater need for smart collaboration because I cannot recall a prior time when the global marketplace was more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than it is now. Obviously Gardner has this in mind when referring to problems that, increasingly, “are so complicated and so sophisticated that no single expert – no matter how smart or hardworking – is in a position to solve them.”

I wholly agree with Gardner that “collaboration is a significant driver of both financial and people-related benefits” for professional firms but also for almost any other organizations that also have concerns about revenues and profits, client/customer retention and loyalty, innovation, transparency, and risk management. It is important to keep in mind that Gardner views collaboration is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself: “knowledge workers integrate their individual, specialized expertise in order to deliver high-quality, customized outcomes on complex issues. Or they team up to develop an innovative approach to a thorny issue. Or they rely on an expert from a different domain who can efficiently transport a best practice across industries rather than reinventing a solution from scratch.”

All organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. That is, people who are willing and able to take whatever initiative is necessary to ensure that whatever needs to be done is done…and done well in a timely manner. That said, I again agree with Gardner that smart collaboration offers several unique challenges that are best revealed within the narrative, in context. The prescriptions she offers in this book “are only the starting point for developing a highly tailored, customized strategy that fits [each] firm’s challenges.”

I commend Heidi Gardner on the wealth of information, insights, and counsel that she provides. It will help leaders in almost any organization to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which smart collaboration is most likely to thrive. As indicated earlier, it is important to keep in mind that Gardner views collaboration is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself: “knowledge workers integrate their individual, specialized expertise in order to deliver high-quality, customized outcomes on complex issues. Or they team up to develop an innovative approach to a thorny issue. Or they rely on an expert from a different domain who can efficiently transport a best practice across industries rather than reinventing a solution from scratch.”

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