Proof of Leadership Blog

Proof of Leadership Blog: developing great leaders

Collaboration! (when it’s needed)


Collaboration has become one of those words.

Used by everyone, to cover everything, providing the solution for all problems. A recent HBR article by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant says it all “Collaborative Overload”.

Collaboration as an important leadership capability

Despite its overuse, collaboration has become one of the top leadership capabilities required by organisations for a reason. It’s a critical gap in capability for most organisations.

Innovation and collaboration for business results

Product innovation, reducing time to market, and sourcing new customers is increasingly critical for all types of businesses from finance to food manufacturing. Particularly when small, agile competitors are using new products to boost sales and grab market share.

So the temptation is to do more of the same, to increase production, increase targets and to reduce costs, including development of people. And at the same time focus on individual results as a way of achieving business results.

However, complex situations require different behaviours, collective behaviours, and in particular collaboration because complex situations require diverse approaches to create successful solutions.

But most of our business heritage has rewarded delivery of individual responses to problems, even as our research and experience is telling us that to respond to our increasingly complex and global business environments, we have to be more collective, collaborative and network oriented[i].

So if you’re a leader or a HR professional responsible for developing capability, how do you respond to this call for collaboration?

Developing collaborative leadership capability

Collaboration is essentially getting the right people together at the right time to achieve a result or solve a complex problem.

It seems to be counter-intuitive, but taking time to skill people in key capabilities, even when you are under pressure, can support innovation in business.

This approach does a number of things – it not only skills people up, but it also says it’s OK to allocate time to change, and that there is a senior leadership expectation that change will happen.

How do you develop collaborative capability?

First of all, understand the skills and processes required for effective collaboration.

Identify whether collaboration is really required

Getting smart about when collaboration is needed and is not – is crucial. Sometimes it seems like collaboration is needed to solve a problem, particularly when there are a lot of stakeholders involved. And getting together with people often feels good. But if there is a solution to the issue you’re confronting and people are agreed on what needs to happen – collaboration isn’t required.

Understand the difference between adaptive and technical issues

Following on from the first point, Heifetz and Linsky provide a good focus on how to differentiate and define “technical” situations verses those that require “adaptive” solutions including collaboration and collaborative leadership.

Recognise that collaboration isn’t an individual sport

From experience and research, key skills required for collaboration include the ability to:

  • influence group dynamics and development
  • facilitate group sessions using participatory and other techniques
  • build trusting relationships through strong interpersonal skills
  • understand own and others’ mental models, values, assumptions and behavioural responses
  • assess stakeholder needs and analyse the best ways to engage them
  • understand and influence the broader political context related to the issue
  • use conflict to “raise or lower the heat” [1]
  • deal with a level of ambiguity and lack of control flexibly.

 Start the collaboration well

From the start of the collaboration great leaders do some key things:

  • Do a stakeholder assessment and ensure that a broad brush is taken to which stakeholders need to be involved or kept informed about the collaboration
  • Create a core group that will progress the issue at the heart of the collaboration and seek assurances they will stay with the project
  • Collectively create a shared vision, agreed set of behaviours to help manage group dynamics and conflict
  • Use good project management strategies including regularly informing stakeholders of progress, even if it’s only a shift in process (for example formation of the core group) – these are key milestones in a collaborative effort
  • Be aware of and manage the politics around this type of project or activity both within the core group and with other stakeholders
  • Set up metrics to measure the success and outcomes of the collaboration.

Deal with blockages to collaboration

Successful collaboration requires a good understanding of the issues that can block collaboration:

  • Structural issues such as governance, legal and regulatory tradition
  • Barriers to trust including competition amongst stakeholders
  • Lack of time – it often takes significant time to achieve a visible outcome through collaboration
  • Lack of awareness and dialogue about the assumptions each person brings with them
  • Difficulty in evaluating achievements or outcomes
  • No clear boundaries about the collaborative context
  • Poor management of conflict or the “undiscussables”
  • Stakeholders adding to the complexity of the environment and the task. 

Measure and communicate results

The results of collaboration are often hard to measure and to communicate, because they cannot be ascribed to one individual or team, but it is possible to create metrics to test whether the collaboration is delivering tangible results from the collaboration.

For example:

  • Faster time to market for new products
  • Improved customer service through collaboration across business units
  • Improved relationships with a community affected by your business
  • Reduced business costs associated with a product or service.

And recognizing everyone’s contribution to the collaboration means they are more likely to get engaged in the future.

Then you aim to develop collaborative capability

What leadership development approaches can support development of collaborative capabilities?

Experience indicates that the strongest shift in collaborative performance comes through the careful design of development -i.e. good collaboration doesn’t happen by accident. Ways you can build capability include:

  • Structure it up: by providing structured development and time out for those involved in the collaboration, collectively working together
  • Recognize new capabilities: the design of the development needs to focus on building the capabilities outlined above and they are different from those generally expected and rewarded
  • Involve senior leaders: complex challenges require whole of enterprise responses and resources, and senior leaders need to be part of the learning
  • Use practical real work issues: as the foundation of this development activity, rather than relying on case studies from other contexts
  • Create on-the-job opportunities: to work on the collaborative project through action learning processes
  • Feedback on development of the collective: skill the group in understanding not only how to collaborate but also how they are working together as part of this collaboration – feedback in real time
  • Recognise results: use the program to recognize the achievements of the group involved in the collaboration.

Taking your next step

When the call for collaboration next goes out, use the ideas in this blog to test the call, and if collaboration is required for a complex business project, create a structured approach to ensuring it’s successful.


[i] Van Velsor, E. (2008). A Complexity Perspective on Leadership Development. In Complexity Leadership Part 1: Conceptual Foundations. M. Uhl-Bien and R. Marion. Charlotte, North Carolina, Information Age Publishing Inc. 1: 333-346

Corporate Executive Board (2015) Enterprise Leaders Improve Team Outcomes, p. 9

Ramo, J C (2016) The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune and Survival in the Age of Networks, Little, Brown and Company New York

Heifetz, R. A., Linsky, M., & Grashow, A. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

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