Issue 1.9 | March 2010

In this Article: How collaboration can effectively counter the core reasons for project and strategy failure.

By Jonathan Wilson

As your business embarks on a new project, it can’t be too thrilling to know that, statistically, it is likely to fail.  But that’s the truth of the matter.  Study after study by the Harvard Business Schools and McKinsey Institutes of this world consistently find failure rates of 70% or higher in the execution of any business strategy.

Rightly, many companies (especially large, matrixed organizations), are focusing on collaboration as a means to increase successful execution of strategy.  This is the case in both macro-strategy (where are we going in the next 5-10 years) and micro-strategy (developing a new product or platform).  There is increasing recognition that collaboration enhances organizational capacity in two areas that significantly improve a company’s chances of executing strategy successfully.

1. Innovation: collaboration produces better ideas that are more likely to work when implemented.  It pools talent, insight and resources to produce powerful synergies.  Tapping diverse stakeholders also generates very powerful, comprehensive solutions to multiple problems that only they can bring to your attention.

2. Efficiency: just as collaboration increases creativity and productivity, it reduces inefficiency and cost through increased cooperation and information sharing between partners, and by harnessing valuable resources that would typically not be accessible (whether silos or other companies).

However, I routinely hear stories from my friends and clients in these large-company environments that reveal three major barriers to successful collaboration.  These barriers are rarely properly identified and are therefore rarely addressed – which means that the odds remain stacked against these projects succeeding.

Barrier 1:  Confusion

Too often collaborators work together in a state of mild-to-serious confusion.  Shared clarity is critical to a collaboration’s success: clarity around the project’s objective; around the motivation for achieving that objective; around the process being used to collaborate; and around contributions and expectations of oneself and one’s partners.  Without this clarity, as I have touched on previously, partners will pull in different directions, resulting in missed deadlines, co-dependency or conflict, and stymied creativity.  The recent development in the US of the Health Care Bill, resulting in half-baked solutions and destined to increase inefficiencies, is a case in point.

Barrier 2: Haste

Most businesses place intense time pressures on themselves because of the rapidity of change and the perceived need to pre-empt the actions of competitors.  At the same time, new initiatives inevitably contain many uncertainties.  By failing to map these uncertainties and identify steps to turn them into certainties, collaboration projects move forward on the basis of untested assumptions, which leads to project failure.

The solution is not necessarily to take more time.  Rather, it is to build risk management processes into collaboration: short-time-frame test-cycles within which a team can deliberately experiment and fail in order to reach certainty about what works and what doesn’t work.  The resulting product is then built not on assumptions, but insight.

Barrier 3: Blockage

Like the lower reaches of a dammed river, collaborations run dry on problem-solving creativity wherever there are blockages between stakeholders: information dams.  Information dams can be circumstantial (geographic distance), structural (organizational distance), or interpersonal (relational distance).  A 2008 HBR study found that the two most significant features of successful project execution were free information flow and clear decision-making rights – even where organizations had relatively clumsy structures!  In other words, everyone had access to all the information, but correspondingly, everyone knew what their particular job required them to do with that information.

Sweating for Success is Better than Crying Over Failure

Here are three illustrations, from different organizations, of overcoming the above barriers.

1. From Confusion to Confidence: In a recent process I facilitated with a board, it took us several days of distilling data until we finally identified the core focus of the organization’s mission (it’s “soul”).  Although the lengthy due diligence began to frustrate some participants, the results were so precise that the final task of establishing strategic objectives took a mere 2 hours.  The frustration was replaced with excitement, as priorities fell easily and naturally into place.

2. From Haste to Speed: My colleague, John Sutherland, CEO of Ennova Inc., was brought into a major bank’s investment group to assist it in developing a new product for investors.  They had an 18 month timeline they were working against.  By applying the risk management principles described above, they had a product tested, in the market and profitable in four months.  In 2009, when the market shrunk 30%, the business grew 17% (my comments above on haste and uncertainty come from the insights I’ve gained from working with John).

3. From Blockage to Flow: John and I worked with a US-based executive team whose business was stalling, despite an ingenious and successful business model.  It soon became clear that, despite their mutual appreciation, in certain areas they lacked sufficient trust to willingly or spontaneously pass on vital information.  This created a major information block that completely stymied their effectiveness as a team.  By working through both trust and governance factors, the team was positioned to freshly leverage the power of its company’s business model.

Collaboration is deceptively simple.  But it is hard work and often counter-cultural for many organizations.  Because of this, there is great temptation to give it lip service only or leave it to braver souls and smaller companies.  But even harder – and more costly – is a failed strategy.  Where would you rather shed sweat and blood and tears – in the hard work and passion of executing a great idea, or over the regret and consequences of failure?  Don’t stall.  Just collaborate.

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