The Discipline of Collaboration – Tools for Collaborative Leadership

In the 21st century we will have to develop new meanings for old words. If you hear the word leader, for instance, what comes to mind? You might envision someone at the top of an organization (or out in front of a team) articulating the direction and motivating people to move in that direction. We will always need that kind of leadership, but as we move into what Harvard’s James Austin predicts will be an "age of alliances," our notion of a leader must broaden (see "Principles for Partnership" by James E. Austin in Leader to Leader Number 18, Fall 2000).

by Russ Linden
Leader to Leader, No. 29 Summer 2003


Many thanks to Bruce Whittenberg and Sharon Peterson of Leadership Montana for passing this article and their comments along:

"Given that one of the guiding principles of Leadership Montana is collaboration, we would like to share with you another article from Leader to Leader, The Discipline of Collaboration, by Russ Linden. One of the most important outcomes we will strive for in Leadership Montana is to develop relationships between the individuals in the class, that might result in collaborative endeavors wherever possible. As described by author David Crislip in this article, collaborative leadership is “leading as a peer, not a superior.”

Again, we appreciate your leadership, your passion for Montana, and your willingness to collaborate for a better Montana."



* A chemist develops an idea for a product to prevent a serious childhood disease. He gets his boss’s support but can’t develop the idea without the involvement of four other divisions in the company, and his boss has no authority over any of their managers.

* Federal Express and the U.S. Postal Service create a strategic alliance in which USPS delivers FedEx packages to homes across the nation, and FedEx carries first class, Priority, and Express mail around the world. It’s a great use of their comparative advantages, but requires managers from these two fierce competitors to start sharing information and develop unprecedented levels of trust.

* Several respected faculty members from different schools at a prestigious university are invited to create a curriculum for a "Smart Growth" program (a concept that balances the needs of business, the environment, and population and transportation growth). They pull it off but it’s a struggle, because of their different disciplines, insufficient facilitation skills, and lack of rewards for doing such interdisciplinary work.
* A superintendent of schools proposes an innovative program to educate children up through age five. The school board is unwilling to fund the program unless the school leaders develop it in collaboration with all area organizations serving very young children. That means forming a coalition of 40 agencies led by people who are used to working alone, and who compete for the same funding sources.


Russ Linden is a management educator who specializes in organizational learning, collaboration, and change. He is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Virginia and the Federal Executive Institute. He works with clients in both the private and public sectors, and has written four books on organizational performance. His most recent book, Working Across Boundaries, came out in 2002. An earlier book, Seamless Government, has been translated into Chinese. (6/2003)


The Imperative for Collaborative Leadership

Each of these examples requires leadership, not hierarchical leadership but collaborative leadership, what collaboration author David Crislip describes as "leading as a peer, not a superior." Collaborative leadership is the art of pulling people together from different units or organizations to accomplish a task that none of them could accomplish — at all or as well — individually. By definition, collaborative leaders have no formal authority over their peers. They must use persuasion, technical competence, relationship skills, and political smarts to get and keep the coalition together and produce the desired goal.

This kind of leadership is hardly new in the organizational world, but it is becoming much more important for a variety of well-documented reasons: the move from a hierarchical to a horizontal organizational world, flatter organization structures, information technology that helps people connect more easily across boundaries, growing complexity in the problems organizations must solve today, and the global economy.

We know that these and other trends have led to an explosion of joint ventures and partnerships. We also know that such lateral arrangements frequently fail. A report by Vantage Partners (a firm that has worked with alliance managers for 20 years) notes that roughly 70 percent of alliances fail, or accomplish only their initial goals.

Collaborative leaders continually balance competing and shifting requirements.

There are many reasons for this subpar record. One has to do with the challenges of leading with no authority. Equal parts entrepreneur, facilitator, and political broker, the collaborative leader must continually balance a set of competing and shifting requirements among alliance partners. It’s an unusual person who can get and keep the parties working well together, move the ball down the field, and tend to the relationships involved as well as the business needs of the partner groups. What do we know about such people and the work they do?


The Tasks of Effective Collaborative Leaders

If you’re representing your organization in a partnership or alliance — within or across organizational boundaries — and you want to exert positive leadership for the group, your (unwritten) job description includes the following tasks:

Articulate the project’s purpose in a way that excites others. The chemist who has an idea for curing a childhood disease needs the help of others to bring the product to market. His idea may be brilliant, but it starts as "his"; to make it "theirs" he needs to find some way to excite and energize others so that they’re willing to forgo some current priorities and invest in this one.

Be an effective convener: get the appropriate people to the table and keep them there. Senior leaders can help here, but those who actually form the core alliance group have the tough job of creating the environment that attracts and retains people with the talents and commitment to make the concept real. When the public school leaders had to work with a large coalition to develop a new program for young kids, they had to figure out how to engage appropriate people from each agency (the people who could speak for their agency). Once the core group was formed, they had to help the participants talk openly about several questions: Why was this project critical to them and their clients? What could each contribute? How could they draw on the best thinking of each partner? Was there anything about the project that might pose a threat to them or their stakeholders? Collaborative leaders find ways to help the parties discuss these important issues.

Help the participants see their common interests, and the benefits possible through joint effort. In some cases the project’s benefits are self-evident; two high-tech firms form a joint venture that captures the strengths of each in order to compete in a new market. In other cases, the benefits are not clear, and will only be realized later. When the group of academics started to create a smart growth program, they had no idea whether and how it would help society. The group’s informal leaders had to find ways to keep the parties interested and committed, despite the fact that the benefits were iffy and down the road, and the costs (in this case their time) were real and borne up front. Quite a challenge.
Trust is almost always an issue.

Generate trust. Even when the benefits of a partnership are clear and tangible, trust is almost always an issue, and needs to be addressed by the participants. That’s because of the nature of collaboration. When people collaborate, the product isn’t mine or yours, it’s ours. FedEx and the USPS aren’t becoming one organization, but their alliance requires that each treats the other’s packages and items as its own; they have to earn each other’s trust through their performance. In the public school example, the participants shared strategies and budget information that they had never disclosed to each other before, in order to create one shared budget for the new program they were proposing. As one person put it, "Our collaboration meant that we had to put our money on the table and our hands behind our backs!"

Help the participants design a transparent, credible process. This relates to a seeming paradox for collaborative leaders. The point of forming a partnership or alliance is to create a product or service that none of the parties can produce (as well) on its own. Effective partnerships are very goal driven, yet they don’t achieve their goal unless some members of the core group pay careful attention to the process for achieving the goal. Do all members have input for the meeting agendas? Who chairs the meetings? Where are they held? What are the ground rules? Who ponies up to provide initial resources? Members of new alliances watch such decisions to determine whether the effort is a true partnership, or if it’s slanted toward one party’s interests. Many businesspeople get frustrated when much attention is given to the process. They need to be reminded, "You go slow to go fast."

Assist the participants in win-win negotiations to meet three related interests. In most negotiations, the parties are concerned with meeting their own needs. When alliance partners negotiate, they must keep three levels of needs in mind: the needs of each partner, of the product they are creating, and of the relationships involved. Effective collaborative leaders know that they can ruin the partnership if they negotiate with only their own unit’s or company’s needs in mind. To negotiate with all three interests requires such collaborative skills as dialogue, balancing advocacy with inquiry, careful listening, and collaborative problem solving.

Leading cause of alliance failure: inability to manage the relationship.

Make relationship building a priority for the group. According to a study of 130 companies by Vantage Partners, the leading cause of alliance failure is the inability to manage the relationships involved (52 percent). Poor strategic fit was a distant second, at 37 percent. Collaborative leaders are usually passionate about the desired outcome, but they don’t let that passion get in the way of building effective relationships. Indeed, they know that it’s only by maintaining such relationships that they can achieve their visions. "These leaders integrate listening and talking at a very high level," says Harvey Seifter, a collaboration expert and former executive director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. "They listen carefully because they respect the specialized knowledge others have, and they’re eager to integrate the best ideas into the product." In other words, it’s in their interest to foster open, trusting relationships.

See that there’s a senior champion for the effort. Many alliances are begun by senior leaders who then create a core group to do the hard work of development and implementation. That’s how FedEx and the Postal Service formed their alliance. In other instances, a manager or professional develops the idea, seeks partners from other organizations, and they jointly develop their concept. The core group may have the energy and talents to create the new product or program, but not senior leadership’s perspective, authority, and command of resources. The best way to get those is to find a senior champion for the project who makes it a priority.

Help everyone engage in collaborative problem solving, and make creative use of their diverse viewpoints when differences arise. In some teams people are so eager to achieve consensus they settle for lower-quality decisions; team members are reluctant to voice strong dissent and important differences of opinion are papered over. This is an understandable but terrible mistake. A team’s goal is to produce a product or service at a high level of quality. Consensus is a means to achieve that. Effective collaborative leaders understand the value in entertaining different perspectives because they’re driven to achieve the desired outcome, and know that a rich mix of differing views can help them get there.

Celebrate small successes, share credit widely. Most who have worked in a partnership group know the frustrating feeling: "Will we ever get from talking to action?" Collaborative efforts require much up-front work, and because the partnership is often not the highest priority for each member, time lines sometimes slip and the energy sags. Collaborative leaders help the group break down the work into manageable chunks, celebrating the small wins and recognizing others’ contributions.

Provide confidence, hope, resilience. Effective collaborative leaders are tough-minded optimists. They accept that there are dozens of reasons why the initiative might falter, but they radiate an expectation of success that becomes contagious. More important than technical brilliance or political smarts is their dogged persistence and resilience.
This is a challenging set of tasks. What do we know about those who excel at them?

Characteristics of Effective Collaborative Leaders

My research over the past four years suggests that effective collaborative leaders share a number of characteristics. They usually have clear competence in a professional or technical area related to the task. Many of them are quite comfortable with risk, and can accept responsibility when the risk doesn’t pan out. Related to that, they know how to deal with changing, chaotic environments. They tend to be future oriented and don’t let past problems or hurdles slow them down. They usually have good political skills in the sense of understanding where the power is in the core group, who the potential rivals are, and what might keep some senior leaders from supporting the initiative, and they have a keen sense of timing and know how to capture the voice of the project’s key stakeholders. And they almost always have good interpersonal skills, the most important of which (in partnerships) is careful listening.

Over and above these characteristics are four key qualities that distinguish effective collaborative leaders from those who aren’t effective.

First, they combine tremendous persistence, energy, and resolve with a measured ego. Collaborative leaders have boundless energy, refuse to be deterred, yet keep their egos in check. (Interestingly, Jim Collins found the same paradoxical combination in the leaders he describes in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.) Their persistence helps them deal with the inevitable hurdles and setbacks they face, and their ability to keep their egos in check ensures that there’s plenty of space for others in the core group to make a contribution. Second (and related), they are passionate about achieving the desired outcome. It’s that passion that creates much of their persistence and that moves them to seek other talented people who have creative ideas to contribute. Because the passion is about the outcome and not about their résumé, they tend to build trust and goodwill.

Third, collaborative leaders pull others rather than push them. By definition, these leaders have no formal authority over their peers. They must find nondirective ways to move people in a positive direction. One way to pull is to tap some inner need or value in others, and show how to meet that need through collaboration. It’s rare that money pulls talented people into a partnership; creative ideas, a compelling purpose, impassioned champions who are willing to take risks to move the project along, and the chance to work with other great people are far more likely to create the pull.

Finally, collaborative leaders think systemically. They see the interconnections in complex systems and are comfortable working interdependently. Leading in a partnership is very complex work and requires high-level systems thinking. Effective collaborative leaders understand their partners’ organizations, the dynamics between them, their customers, the technology involved, and how it may change. Like world-class chess players, they know how to think several moves ahead and factor in what other players may do.

These characteristics produce effective results in many settings, of course, but they’re especially powerful in environments where the final product must have shared ownership. Perhaps surprisingly, many effective politicians exhibit these characteristics. They are surrounded by people with outsized egos who are always looking for ways to get good press. They have no power over their peers (although they often wield influence when they chair committees). Those who can form coalitions to get bills passed tend to be collaborative leaders.

One example: In 1997, the mayor of a western city helped create a successful regional partnership with local officials who had resisted partnerships in the past. One observer noted that the mayor’s approach was the key to turning them around: "He was always generous, treated others with respect, didn’t let his ego go to his head, listened carefully, was incredibly focused and driven, was forceful but not bombastic . . . and never took ‘no’ for a final answer!" That’s a classic definition of collaborative leadership.
You can’t force collaboration, but you can expect it.

Finally, a challenge to organizational leaders. It’s captured in the comment of a collaboration veteran who has worked in the public and private sectors, "You can’t force collaboration, but you can expect it." When organizational leaders make very clear their expectations for collaborative behavior, and when they consistently ask questions that remind people of those expectations, they tend to get what they expect.
The late John Gardner, former cabinet secretary and co-founder of Common Cause, once said, "Behind all the current buzz about collaboration is a discipline. . . . If it contained a silicon chip we’d all be excited." Well, there is no chip in collaboration, but there most certainly is a discipline. Our job is to learn to apply it.

Tools for Collaborative Leadership

Can we grow collaborative leaders? That’s the larger organizational question requiring attention today. One obvious and effective answer is to hire people who have already demonstrated collaborative skills. And that’s exactly what Southwest Airlines, the U.S. Marines, and some other high-performing organizations have been doing for years. It’s far easier to start with people who want to collaborate and help them hone their talents than to change someone who’s always preferred to go it alone.

Here are some other effective practices for developing collaborative leaders and a culture that supports them. Some are formal methods, others are informal. The challenge is to determine which practices best fit your organization’s cultures.

* Remove administrative and organizational barriers to collaboration. Emphasize to administrative unit managers (HR, budget, legal, finance) that it’s their responsibility to become a partner, not an obstacle, to those doing cross-boundary work. Collaborative leaders need considerable flexibility to succeed, easy access to others’ information, the ability to bring new staff on board quickly. Put another way, they need permeable organizational boundaries. Administrative managers must create such conditions to support horizontal work.

* Offer training in the key collaboration skills. These include win-win negotiations; dialogue and conflict management; collaborative problem solving; meeting facilitation; dealing with difficult situations, conversations, and people; and use of positive political skills. Surprisingly, most companies engaged in alliances report that they lack a formal means for instilling collaborative skills in employees.

* Recognize and support collaborative leaders. That usually doesn’t mean money. Often these leaders’ biggest payoff is to see their project succeed. Their boss’s main task may be to knock down barriers and make clear that there are consequences for those who help or derail collaborative efforts.

* Provide some "patient money." Alliances usually need some discretionary resources to get started, and innovative projects take time to demonstrate their value.

* Learn and publicize best practices from other partnerships and alliances. Collaborative leaders shouldn’t have to figure it all out on their own.

Provide experienced mentors. Mentors can offer insights about the political land mines that exist, help locate resources, and suggest ways to manage the press and create positive stories about the effort. And they can model collaborative leadership, which is one of the best ways to teach it.

* Tell the stories of successful collaborative leaders. That kind of recognition is meaningful both to the individuals who succeed and to others who may yet give it a try. It includes providing the means for collaborative leaders to tell their own stories to each other and to others (at management and executive development sessions, through articles, and at conferences, brown bags, and the like). This can lead to true communities of practice.

Copyright © 2003 by Russ Linden. Reprinted with permission from Leader to Leader, a publication of the Leader to Leader Institute and Jossey-Bass.

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