Collaborating Better

In a recent piece in the Financial Times (FT, March 15, 2012), Ross Tieman addresses the challenge of moving effectively “from teamwork to collaboration” ( Successful collaboration today, he observes, requires a fuller capacity, often guided by emotional intelligence, to work with individuals with different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and geographical location. Being a good team player is no longer enough in a time when teams and the situations or projects with which they engage are so varied and complex.

It’s a sensible conclusion but the real value of Tieman’s remarks emerges when teasing out two of the issues he raises. The first is simply the power of reflecting on the overuse of ‘teamwork’ or collaboration’ as an easy fix for whatever ails an agency or project. Familiar imperatives like hiring more team players or collaborating better across functions or even organizations can indeed be helpful but also often fail to provide any specific value or concrete way forward. The challenge is to be willing to pause in order to determine which specific forms of or approaches to collaboration will best serve the needs of a given project, partnership, or situation.

A second issue, complexity, has increasingly emerged as a basis for re-casting various longstanding approaches to management and leadership. Despite numerous definitions of complexity, the current emphasis on the term turns fairly consistently on a lack of predictability. By this logic, while complicated situations or projects may involve multiple elements or participants operating over a long period of time, their evolution and outcomes remain largely predictable. With complex situations, however, the different elements in a system or situation are interdependent and, as such, eventually defy predictability over time. A familiarly helpful contrast is between the traffic light operating in a complicated setting and the air traffic control system operating in a complex one.

Tieman references Pam Jones and the research on leading complex teams she has helped to conduct (often with Vicki Holton) for nearly a decade at the Ashridge Business School (UK). Their work has identified a range of different types of teams – ad hoc, multidisciplinary, dispersed geographically, working on complex projects, multicultural, spread across organizational boundaries, virtual and rarely meeting, and so forth – that are often overlapping and defy the formulation of any single approach for team members or leaders to succeed. Instead, they explore how different skills and competencies, many rooted in greater communication, willingness to share responsibility, and ultimately expand their emotional intelligence, can help develop more adaptable teams and leaders. Such exploration accords with some of relevant works from US management scholars, including Morten Hansen’s richly researched yet wonderfully practical Collaboration (2009) and Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble’s guide to building the right teams for experimentation and execution, The Other Side of Innovation (2010).

Reflecting on the specific conditions confronting organizations and their teams and engaging more fully with the complexity of contemporary teams are two behaviors that will reward leaders of organizations and teams alike. In creative communication industries, where a long tradition of productive teams already exists, the call is often for more collaboration and teamwork, especially across increasingly blurring organizational boundaries. As research has shown and more popular pieces like Tieman’s reinforce, the more meaningful call should not necessarily be for more but for better collaboration – better-suited to environmental conditions and team member capabilities, better-aligned with organizational and strategic resources and priorities, and better-recognizing the complexity and interdependency characterizing today’s dynamic markets.

[This post will also appear in the forthcoming April newsletter of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, at]

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