Issue 1.5 | October 2009

In this Article: Is collaboration a cliché or is it a source of competitive advantage?  If so, how do you tap into the power of collaboration?

By Jonathan Wilson

Collaboration is both current and cool.  However, when a great idea becomes “pop”, we can quickly lose sight of just why it is so powerful.  So, to quote a pop song that has become a classic, “Imagine …”

“Imagine all the people …” with whom you work or organizations with whom you partner.  Imagine that whenever they have an idea, a challenge or a piece of news, they want to tell you about it and do.  They ask for your ideas – even when their problem has nothing to do with your domain or role – imagine that!  Imagine that you are each so sold on your collective goal, you put up with each other’s idiosyncrasies and irritating habits to achieve it.  In fact, imagine that each of you recognizes value in the peculiar traits of the other partners, and draw on them to co-create solutions that combine your diverse intelligences.  What you are imagining is the power of true collaboration, where diverse partners willingly combine resources and spontaneously share significant information in order to address a shared concern, with the result that they create a solution of extraordinary value to all.

And now that you have finished imagining, it is probable that you realise how many projects described as “collaborations” do not fit the label.  What is it that makes collaboration so difficult to carry out?  There are a number of best practises for collaboration hinted at in the paragraph above – the need for a shared purpose, an ROI for all, the easy and regular flow of significant information, capturing all the resources and insights available in a network, and so on.  If these are not deliberately cultivated, the collaboration developed will offer only partial yields.  There is no one silver bullet.

Nevertheless, the greatest barrier to collaboration is not the absence of a technique or skill – it is the inherent need for control that we all bring to our partnerships; we all feel a need to protect our interests.

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Collaboration creates vulnerability: our interests become exposed to our partners’ influence.  If we feel our interests are not safe in the other party’s hands, we will introduce measures to protect ourselves: control mechanisms.  The problem is, as controls go up, the speed and effectiveness of collaboration goes down.  These are not the ingredients for extraordinary solutions.

To minimize collaboration-inhibiting behaviours that prevent extraordinary solutions, you must build an environment of trust.  You cannot build the kind of trust needed for collaboration on your integrity and competence alone.  You must cultivate deep insight and understanding between partners.  Assumptions and misunderstanding kill trust.  Insight eliminates unknowns and lowers risk.  It increases appreciation.  And most powerfully, it enables partners to tap into each others’ previously hidden insights and resources.

Trust is the grease in the collaboration engine.  The fewer controls you feel you need to exercise in a partnership, the more likely you are to engage instinctively in collaborative behaviours: the willing and spontaneous sharing of significant information, resources and effort.

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Why the Dreamliner Is Late

For some time now Boeing has been the darling of any study to do with collaboration.  Their project to develop the state-of-the-art, materially composite, Boeing 787 (Dreamliner), has drawn on over 50 partners from 130 locations around the world.  To enable these partners to leverage their respective skills and technologies against the task at hand, Boeing designed and implemented an impressive, virtually-driven, “Global Collaboration Environment” (GCE) system.  On one level, it has worked.  The Dreamliner is the leading edge in the aircraft manufacturing industry.  At the same time, the project has been fraught with difficulties, culminating in seven delays, the latest of which was last month.  This added two years to the deadline for delivery.  This is not just about punctuality.  It is about reputation with buyers and it carries a price-tag: Boeing will be heavily penalized with late-delivery fines.

Observers are blaming Boeing’s reliance on outsourcing, which introduced quality control issues to the process. Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, however, believes they did not collaborate to the degree they could have. “We wouldn’t do it exactly the same way,” he says. “I would have more shared engineering done together. I would certainly have visibility on the supply chain across corporate boundaries” (Boeing 787 Delays Cast Hard Light On Outsourcing, Reuters, September 22, 2009).  The sophistication of Boeing’s GCE system clearly did not facilitate the high levels of collaboration described in this article.  What matters most, of course, is that Boeing is learning from its mistakes (another best practise of effective collaboration).

There may, however, be another piece to the puzzle of Boeing’s delayed delivery.  Between 1997 and 2003, Boeing laid off 33% of its enormous workforce.  A recent Yale University study reveals that this left employees feeling vulnerable and unsafe.  Their personal interests were at high risk.  The result, according to the authors, was that “they tended to become emotionally numb and disengaged” (When the Laid-Off Are Better Off, BusinessWeek, October 22, 2009).  Although the Dreamliner project “has helped revive Boeing’s esprit de corp”, the study indicates that the situation is “improved” but not resolved.  Could it be that a major cause of Boeing’s limited effectiveness in collaboration was not only inadequate shared processes with external partners, but also distrustful, self-protecting behaviours that its own employees brought to the project?

Any further delays, and Boeings’ chief competitor, Airbus, though less efficient, may be able to seize the advantage.  The lesson for today’s company is this: effective collaboration is essential to competitive advantage, and effective collaboration is built on trust.

Another soul insight from

SlideshowThe Power Of Trust: 3 Steps to Generate, Strengthen, & Accelerate Powerful Business Transactions