The following material is featured on the MIT SLoan Management Review website. I urge you to check out the wealth of resources by clicking here.
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Collaboration is all the rage in business these days – and for good reason, given the complex challenges businesses face today. But recently published research suggests that collaboration can exact heavy time costs if done inefficiently.
Consider this. In research published in MIT Sloan Management Review, Rob Cross of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce and four coauthors — Peter Gray, Shirley Cunningham, Mark Showers and Robert J. Thomas — analyzed employee networks in the IT functions of 12 large companies. Their aim: To better understand how to foster effective collaboration.
Some of the authors’ findings also shed light on the time costs of inefficient collaboration. For example, the authors write in an article in MIT Sloan Management Review that:
“At Monsanto the employees who interacted with the least efficient project managers and organizational leaders spent five times more time preparing for and engaging in those collaborations than did employees who interacted with the most efficient project managers and organizational leads….”
“Many individuals spent 25 to 35 hours per week preparing for and engaging in collaborations with others.”
Monsanto managers, according to the article, concluded that if they could help just 20 of their less-efficient project managers and leaders become average in collaborative efficiency, the approximately 400 individuals who routinely interacted with those project managers and leaders would save up to 1500 hours a week, collectively.
In general, the authors observe that:
“Although collaboration is often seen as a virtue, too much collaboration at too many organizational levels can be a negative. It is important to reduce network connectivity at points where collaboration fails to produce sufficient value.”
You can read more about the authors’ other findings – and how individuals and business units can collaborate more effectively — in the Fall 2010 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.
How about you? How much of your workweek do you spend collaborating or preparing to collaborate with others? (And how much time do you think people spend preparing to collaborate with you?) Could any of that collaboration be done more efficiently?
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Findings of special interest to me:
1. Executives should analyze employee collaboration networks to discover how high-performing individuals and teams connect.
2. Networks should be designed to optimize the flow of good ideas across function, distance and technical specialty.
3. Network analysis can show where too much connectivity slows decision making.
Some of the most valuable articles appeared in major business journals several years ago. For example, Theodore Levitt’s Marketing Myopia that appeared in an issue of HBR (July 1, 2004). In another article that appeared in HBR (in 1963), Peter Drucker observes, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Here is an excerpt from an article co-authored by Rob Cross, Andrew Hargadon, Salvatore Parise, and Robert J. Thomas that was published more recently in MIT Sloan Management Review (September 14, 2007).
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How can companies come up with new ideas? By getting employees working with one another.
WHEN it comes to innovation, the myth of the lone genius dies hard. Most companies continue to assume that innovation comes from that individual genius, or, at best, small, sequestered teams that vanish from sight and then return with big ideas. But the truth is most innovations are created through networks — groups of people working in concert.
The misperception has never been more damaging, as companies pour more money into generating ideas and then end up frustrated as innovations simply don’t develop. To lay the groundwork for innovation, organizations must make it easy for their employees to build networks — talk to their peers, share ideas and collaborate.
After studying networks in more than 20 organizations, we’ve found three problems that stifle innovation. They share a couple of common themes: the failure to effectively leverage the expertise of employees (or their peers in partner organizations) and the failure to react effectively when new ideas do arise. But we’ve also found five steps companies can take to clear those barriers and start producing big ideas.
Here’s a look at one of the network problems and how to solve it.
1. No Communication In any organization, there are many people who could almost certainly team up to produce new ideas — but often the structure of the company keeps them apart. The problem could be simple logistics: The workers may be in different departments or physical locations, for instance, or company bureaucracy could keep them from knowing they’re working in parallel on the same task. Or their bosses may dislike each other, making collaboration tricky.
These problems can afflict even relatively small groups within a company. Consider the plight of a partner in a well-known accounting firm who was leading a group of 50 experts to develop new services. After a year, the group had produced few new offerings — and the ones they did produce were often rejected by the firm.
What happened? The partner had divided the experts into three groups that didn’t work together effectively. The researchers would come up with ideas, then hand them off to technical specialists for vetting. Then the specialists would pass them along to marketers, who would commercialize the concepts.
Having each group take an individual, isolated look at the ideas slowed things down considerably. It also prevented the technical specialists and marketers from introducing new ideas themselves, or getting an early say in the process. So, for instance, ideas that just wouldn’t work commercially often made it all the way to the marketers for vetting — instead of getting shot down at the start.
Get the Right People Talking There’s a crucial first step companies can take to improve innovation: figure out what everyone inside the company knows — and make sure they talk to people with complementary talents.
Consider the R&D group from the consumer-products organization we mentioned earlier. Its employees had the right range of skills to produce new ideas, but they still weren’t innovating. (The company, by the way, never directly addressed the microbiologist stranglehold, but it did make changes to ensure that worthy fringe ideas weren’t rejected out of hand.)
We looked at the R&D employees’ skills, and tried to match up people who would best complement each other to accomplish the company’s goals. As part of the effort, management held an offsite conference. In many cases, people use these events to reconnect with others they already know. But in this case, everything was designed to get strangers talking.
For instance, everyone was given an electronic name tag as they headed off for dinner and drinks at the end of the first day. These badges, which contained a host of information about the employees’ contacts and skills, helped broker introductions. When people approached someone they didn’t know who had complementary skills, the badge would light up and flash a welcome. For instance: “Hi, Bob. We should be talking about biochemistry.”
Management looked at who made connections during the conference, and let these new acquaintances work together on projects. The effort paid off with some big advances. For instance, the company came up with customized packaging and designs for candy that commanded much higher prices than the company’s traditional offerings.
The above article content © copyright 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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To read the complete article, click here.
I also urge you to check out my interview of Andrew Hargadon. Please click here.
Also, my review of his brilliant book, How Breakthroughs Happen. Please click here.
Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. He also is the chairman of the board of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. He has written 28 books, including On Becoming A Leader, Organizing Genius with Patricia Ward Biederman, Why Leaders Can’t Lead, The 21st Century Organization with Michael Mische, and Geeks and Geezers with Robert J. Thomas (recently re-issued as Leading for a Lifetime). He then co-authored Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls with Noel Tichy, followed by Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor, co-authored with Daniel Goleman and James O’Toole, with assistance provided by Patricia Ward Biederman.
Note: Since this interview was conducted a few years ago, Bennis has published two additional books: Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership and The Essential Bennis with Patricia Ward Biederman.
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Here is a brief excerpt from my interview of Bennis.
Morris: One of the recurrent themes in all of your books and articles is the importance of developing effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of an organization. How can these leaders learn to transmute chaos? How do they not only learn to accept change and ambiguity, but to thrive on it?
Bennis: That is the key challenge facing management today; change is the only constant. Some of the strongest resistance to necessary change is the result of what Jim O’Toole has so aptly characterized as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”
Here are some suggestions:
1. Manage the dream: Create a compelling vision, one that takes people to a new place, and then translate that vision into a reality.
2. Embrace error: Create an atmosphere in which prudent risk taking is strongly encouraged. One of the worst mistakes is to do nothing. Like Karl Wallenda in his prime, those who take risks walk the high wire with no fear of falling. As former UCLA basketball legend, John Wooden, put it, “Failure is not the crime. Low aim is.”
3. Encourage reflective backtalk: Leaders know the importance of having someone in their lives who will unfailingly and fearlessly tell them the truth.
4. Encourage dissent: Leaders should have associates who have contrary views, who are devil’s advocates, “variance sensors” who can tell them the difference between what is expected and what is really happening, between what they want to hear and what they need to hear. There are too many naked emperors running around today.
5. Possess the “Nobel Factor”: Possess and constantly demonstrate optimism, faith, and hope. They create choices. I am reminded of an ancient Chinese proverb: “That the birds of worry and care fly above your head, this you cannot change; but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.”
6. Understand the “Pygmalion Effect”: Leaders should always expect the very best of those around them. They know that people can change and grow. I frequently recall when, as a child, I first learned about The Little Engine That Could. It climbed the hill because it believed it could. Expect the best from your people and they will usually deliver but your expectations must be realistic. (One of my occasional disappointments is expecting too much from my people. Emily Dickinson once wrote, “I dwell in possibilities…a fairer house than prose.” By and large, though, it’s paid off.
7. Understand the “Gretzky Factor”: Cultivate an instinct, a “touch, call it what you will, that enables you to know both where the “puck” is now and where it will be soon.
8. See the long view: By all means “plant the corn, milk the cows, and feed the horses” but always keep the eventual “harvest” in mind. At lengthy meetings at Camp David with President Sadat of Egypt, Prime Minister Begin of Israel explained why they were able to reach several agreements after more than 2,000 years of bloody wars. “We did what all wise men do. We began at the end.”
9. Understand stakeholder symmetry: Find the appropriate balance of competing claims by various groups of stakeholders. All claims deserve consideration but some claims are more important than others. Think of all the competing claims Abraham Lincoln faced when he assembled his cabinet as President on the eve of the Civil War. He took all of the competing claims into full account and then decided what he believed to be in the nation’s best interests.
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If you wish to read the entire Bennis interview, please contact click here.