The Collaboration Blind Spot

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Lisa B. Kwan for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Andrew Zuckerman

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A few years ago, the leaders of a multibillion-dollar energy systems company, which I’ll call EnerPac, decided to offer an after-sales service plan for one of its products. The new plan promised to generate a sizable new revenue stream and was strategically important for the company. The key to success would be figuring out how to integrate the service plan seamlessly with the sales process. And the best way to make that happen, the company’s leaders knew, would be to bring people from the sales and service departments together and ask them to collaborate.

Leaders understand the central role that cross-group collaboration plays in business today. It’s how companies of all shapes and sizes—from Starbucks and SpaceX to boutique banks and breweries—plan to innovate, stay relevant, and solve problems that seem unsolvable. It’s how they plan to meet changing customer expectations, maintain market share, and stay ahead (or just abreast) of competitors. In short, it’s how companies plan to succeed, compete, and just survive.

The leaders of EnerPac understood this well. So they forged ahead with their initiative. They convened a special meeting with Sales and Service in which they explained the financial and strategic importance of the new offering. They developed a clear action plan for the weeks and months ahead. They came up with incentives, made a senior leader available to both groups expressly for the venture, and funded it amply. Only after they’d put check marks in all those boxes did they officially launch the collaboration, with high hopes for the results.

But the initiative ran into problems almost immediately. Sales and Service just weren’t collaborating. Instead, they began making important decisions about the project on their own and excluded each other from meetings about topics of mutual concern. They dragged their feet in sharing data—or dumped so much data on each other, in so many different formats, that making sense of it became almost impossible. Needless to say, they started missing project milestones. Ultimately, the initiative sputtered to a halt.

EnerPac’s leaders were flummoxed. They’d bent over backward to get the project off to a good start, and everybody had seemed on board. What had happened?

Stalling Out

For the past eight years, I’ve done extensive research into what makes cross-group collaboration succeed and fail. For six of those years, as part of my doctoral research at Harvard Business School, I devoted attention to three global companies and, separately, conducted 120 interviews with managers and employees at 53 companies where groups had been asked to collaborate but were failing to do so. Time and again, I came across leaders who were scratching their heads—or pulling their hair out—as they tried to figure out why their initiatives weren’t progressing as planned. Each situation was different, of course. But the roots of the problems can be traced back to the same initial cause. I call it the collaboration blind spot.

Here’s the problem: In mandating and planning for collaborative initiatives, leaders tend to focus on logistics and processes, incentives and outcomes. That makes perfect sense. But in doing so they forget to consider how the groups they’re asking to work together might experience the request—especially when those groups are being told to break down walls, divulge information, sacrifice autonomy, share resources, or even cede responsibilities that define them as a group. All too often, groups feel threatened by such demands, which seem to represent openings for others to encroach on their territory. What if the collaboration is a sign that they’ve become less important to the company? What if they give up important resources and areas of responsibility and never get them back? What will happen to their reputation?

Nagged by concerns about their security, groups that have been asked to collaborate often retreat into themselves and reflexively assume a defensive posture. Their top priorities: Guard the territory, minimize the threat.

This kind of behavior can have consequences that extend beyond the collaboration at hand. A group focused on protecting its turf and minimizing threats can come across as uncooperative and a poor team player. Word gets around that it “can’t be trusted” or is “two-faced”—assessments that can harm future efforts to collaborate before they begin.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Lisa B. Kwan is a collaboration consultant, a senior researcher at Harvard University, and an executive leadership coach at Harvard Business School.

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