I had the opportunity to listen to Mark Mortensen and Heidi Garner at a Harvard Business Review event a few weeks back.
Mark focuses on team level collaboration and suggests doing this effectively, especially in ‘4D’ (diverse, dispersed, digital and dynamic), ie more networked, teams is about have a compelling direction, a strong structure, a supportive context and a critical fourth condition: a shared mindset. This last condition is required in order to avoid two corrosive problems—‘us versus them’ thinking and incomplete information. In these 4D teams, team members tend not to perceive themselves as one cohesive group but as several smaller subgroups. We need a shared mindset to avoid seeing our own subgroup more positively than others.
Geographically dispersed teams have particular issues and Mortensen suggests that when two geographically distant groups are unequal in number, the smaller group can be disadvantaged.
However, when just one of the team members were located away from the rest of the team, their role seemed to promote better cooperation, better communication, and better outcomes across the team.
Mark also studies multi team membership which formed much of the context for the HBR event.
Heidi focuses on organizational collaboration at a broader level, including on how collaborative teams are formed. She is the author of one of the best books on social organizations, Smart Collaboration which focuses on collaborative working in professional services firms. It’s an interesting sector to focus on as it has previously been very individually focused (I remember the days of ‘eat what you kill’ from my own early experience) but does obviously need to be collaborative (though I would suggest Heidi’s focus is actually on network cooperation rather than team collaboration).
Heidi provides some great evidence for the impact of collaboration too, and suggests that it is now becoming so important that it is likely to become mere table stakes.
However there are real obstacles too, and I like Heidi’s list which includes lack of trust (competence and interpersonal warmth), confidence and capability to dig into clients’ broader issues, lack of knowledge about a firm’s offerings, inefficiency of collaboration processes at startup and during ongoing coordination, and the politics and messiness of managing peers’ work.
I agree that social technologies are a big part of tackling these issues, though I don’t know why Heidi felt the need to invent a new acronym CTP (collaborative technology platform) vs using the more common ESN (enterprise social network).
I also like the suggestion of using network brokers to suggest which partners are likely to reciprocate collaborative behaviours though I’m less sure why these brokers need to be partners themselves. And I don’t agree with the suggestion that partners prioritise ruthlessly and realistically - in my experience this just becomes an excuse not to collaborate and passes ineffectiveness on to other parts of the organization.
And I like most of Heidi’s suggestions around measurement and compensation (both of which Mark writes about too). Both are big issues and can either get badly in the way or enable the right approach. But I don’t agree that firms should measure something and not share it (eg office based P&Ls) as this will create misalignment between different levels of the organisation (firm, office, individual, etc) and contribute to mistrust and cynicism. (edited)
And I do have a couple of broader issues with the book.
Firstly, I don’t think the book goes far enough. Eg it talks about motivating the stars but seems to assume that these people are still the same individually and sales focused types they have always been, just with them behaving in a slightly different way. To me, a truly collaborative firm has got to start defining stars in a very different way. And it’s easier to start with these existing collaborators rather than trying to change existing rainmakers into great collaborators.
Secondly, I disagree that collaboration is just a means to and end. On it’s own it has no value, that is true. But by investing in collaboration organisations can make other benefits emerge as well. This means they need to invest in collaboration / social capital as a basis for their future success, without knowing what the nature of that success will be. Heidi herself writes about a necessary leap of faith before companies get through the pain barrier and collaboration starts to become a normal way of working.
And thirdly, I’m not sure Heidi’s smart collaboration is a real thing, other than being about collaborating in efficient and effective ways. Surely we should be able to assume there will be this desire too. In fact, this is why I focus on social capital rather than just collaboration. Collaboration can be good or bad - not just because it’s inefficient or ineffective, but just because there’s too much of it. Social capital, as the value of the collaboration, is always a good thing.
That of course leads us on to the topic of Heidi and Mark’s recent article, and of the talk.
Increasingly, businesses are progressing beyond individual projects and are scaling this up to a projectised approach to the whole organization.
We need to deploy human capital in the same way as other capital - firstly, for efficiency; secondly, we don’t want people on the bench and with multiple projects we can smooth demand and act flexibly; and thirdly, there’s an additional new wave about complexity - people are increasingly specialised so it makes sense to leverage this across projects. These benefits, shown on the top line of the slide, are about appealing to the value / operations / utilisation of assets.
The bottom line is about caring about people. Firstly, there is projects as mechanisms for learning, diffusing knowledge across silos. And secondly, it provides a means to empower staff meaning organizations are more likely to retain them.
The dark side of multi teaming is that projects often raise competing demands and leaders aren’t necessarily co-ordinating them. People end up being spread too thinly - engaged in planning rather than doing, dealing with complexity in resourcing etc - and therefore not feeling they have a ‘home’ (why I suggest projects often need to be complemented with communities) and unable to develop the skills they need.
This leads to people doing lots of task switching and high switching costs. The impact of this ‘thrash’ depends on how close the various projects are to one another and also on the differences in the context and environment, eg there can be a ‘status residual’ when someone who has been a project manager on one project has to take a team member role and therefore to ‘zip it’ on an different team.
In addition people may not get exposure and may not learn anything when they bounce from one project to the next. This also impacts cohesion - when people are too stretched they become really stressed, so even if they want to catch up with someone later it will never happen.
The other issue is that we don’t understand the trade offs, eg about how multi teaming impacts things like resource allocation, on-time project completion, and the cost of reducing slack, particularly on resistance to external shocks. (edited)
Or we might understand the project side, but not the intersection with the non project side of the organization. Especially if people can pulled off this side onto projects too, often for emotional rather than rational reasons.
And we don’t understand how well multi commitment is distributed (eg one person works on 12 projects in the graph above). Often there are people who like having this sort of diverse palette of projects, but they are not always good at managing it. the problem is particularly significant in organizations like IBM which have internal talent marketplaces and people are empowered to self select which projects to work on. By definition, there is no one person in change and there is often pressure to be on lots of projects to be promotable.
We had a conversation about whether managing this should be a line manager or individual responsibility, and later I chatted to Herminia Ibarra who suggested systems like 360 degree feedback could help. For me, it’s about implementing communities alongside projects, so that people have a home, and somewhere to discuss these sorts of problems. But of course, that has the potential just to add over commitment too.
What Our Clients Are Saying
Jon Ingham is a British HR consultant and author who rose to global visibility through his blog. His influence stems from his audience, a relentless travel schedule and the depth and clarity of his thought. Ingham travels the entire HCM waterfront and is willing to take us along on the ride with him. Ingham is still early in his career. It’s not outrageous to imagine him as the next Ulrich. We’re going to keep following him", John Sumser, HR Examiner.
The Social Organization - copyright © 2020 - all rights reserved