The Challenge of Collaboration


Strategies for business leaders to foster collaboration in their organisations. One positive outcome from the global pandemic has been the stories of collaboration. Back in February 2020 Paul Stoffels, M.D., Vice Chairman of the Executive Committee and Chief Scientific Officer, Johnson and Johnson, announced.

“We are collaborating with regulators, healthcare organisations, institutions and communities worldwide to help ensure our research platforms, existing science and outbreak expertise can be maximized to stem this public health threat.”

The search for the vaccine has seen unprecedented global collaboration among the scientific community and we are now thankfully beginning to see the first successful results of these collaborative efforts. Collaboration is clearly a useful strategy for solving big problems but what are the strategies that we can take as business leaders to foster collaboration in our own organisations?

One key factor in successful collaborations is uniting people behind a compelling goal for mutual benefit. This causes us to put aside our personal goals and affiliations if they are conflicting. “Leaders need to craft a compelling goal that makes people commit to a cause greater than their own individual goals. A good goal must have a common result, must be simple and concrete, must stir a passion and place competition on the outside.” This was one of the key factors identified by Professor Morten T. Hansen in his book Collaboration. The search for a vaccine certainly fulfills the criteria of a compelling goal.

Collaboration in the workplace is a process, where people work together in a way that maximises individual contribution while leveraging the collective intelligence of everyone involved. It is the way in which a group of people collectively explore ideas to generate solutions that extend beyond the limited vision of a single person.

If we take a musical analogy co-operation and teamwork are akin to playing sheet music in an orchestra where we know our part and the result is reasonably certain whereas collaboration is like playing improvised jazz.

By collaborating we can generate solutions beyond what we can come up with individually, but this work can be labour intensive, is less structured and involves sharing our knowledge and resources. It also often means creating new social norms around how we operate. Therefore, it makes sense to think strategically about what projects you want to encourage real collaboration on.

When collaboration works it creates synergies or what researchers have termed “Collaborative advantage”. When collaboration does not work, collaborative activities can be frustratingly slow to produce output and also generate conflict. Collaboration works best where innovation is needed, to generate greater sales, operational efficiencies and to solve big problems that transcend organisations and borders.

As well as a compelling unifying goal key factors necessary for collaboration at an organisation level include trust, culture, design, and structure.

Trust in this instance is vulnerability. People need to feel that they can express concerns they have, can ask for help, and can voice their opinions without fear of criticism.

Under design it is important to consider how we manage communication, decision making and conflict. Key in the collaboration to find a vaccine has been the sharing of knowledge. For example, among the scientific community over 137,000 viral genomic sequences of Covid-19 have been shared via GISAID an online database.

Under structure, leaders can look to having the right people involved. Here the right people will include people with the requisite professional expertise for the problem to be solved and structure also refers to creating networks across and outside the organisation.

It may be the case that humans do not only collaborate because we are smart, but we are smart because we collaborate and this is one evolutionary advantage that we need to make full use of to solve the challenges ahead. Johnson and Johnson, 2020. Johnson & Johnson Launches Multi-Pronged Response to Coronavirus Global Public Health Threat. [Online]

Available at: https://www.jnj.com/johnson-johnson-launches-multi-pronged-response-to-coronavirus-global-public-health-threat

Hansen, M. T., 2009. Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results. s.l.:Harvard Business Press.

GISAID, 2020. GISAID database. [Online] Available at: https://www.gisaid.org/

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