What’s Happening in the World of Collaboration?

Leadership collaboration can be defined as forming and preserving those critical business relationships and interpersonal connections that are outside formal hierarchical systems. Collaborative activities lie on the continuum between providing information and devolved decision making. Collaboration can occur within agencies, between agencies and across sectors.

Of course it all begins with biology – the birds and the bees of collaboration

As early as the 1950s, scientist Gregory Bateson was influencing the theory of the knowledge age by viewing organisations as living systems, shifting focus from categorisation of tasks and people, to integration and focusing on observing systems which included the perspective of the observer.

‘Every collaboration helps you grow. With Bowie, it’s different every time. I know how to create settings, unusual aural environments. That inspires him. He’s very quick.’

– Brian Eno

In the 1980‘s, collaboration as a means to achieving performance improvement in business began with the work of biologist Humbeto Maturana, who posited that intelligent action is created in social systems, and that human beings naturally form social systems in the workplace. Organisations as living systems took hold in the 1990’s through the work of Peter Senge.

Twenty years on – why does it remain a challenge to delivering results across organisational boundaries?

‘Use people whom you’re excited by and who share your excitement.The ideal collaboration is one in which the actor and director are saying to each other, ‘I can’t believe how lucky we are to be making a movie together.’

– James Toback, screen writer

Perhaps the answer lies in unpacking exactly what collaboration means and in what context. Clearly collaboration in the arts is rampant, with musicians and actors quick to credit each other for new and exciting creations. They seek out other artists to collaborate in an openly trusting way, knowing that the sum of their efforts will be better than what they could have achieved alone.

When you follow the thread of the research, what appears to be common is taking the time to understand the role active relationships play in collaboration. By active relationships, it is meant taking time to listen and create a shared sense of excitement around a common vision.

Organisational transformation is accelerated when active relationships support the generation of value-creating social systems which transcend management hierarchies1. These value creating social systems occur when employees can self organise around a common purpose. Hewlett Packard discovered that when their people could self organise and therefore seek out those who had a passion for resolving quality issues, escalations of quality problems that would normally be generated every twenty days were resolved, saving the organization millions of dollars.

So how does this collaborative approach work in practice?

It’s about appealing to and accessing those people who are already inside the system rather than creating an outside SWAT team to fix the issue. As Adam Kahane, world leader in transformative scenario planning stated, ‘You can’t be part be part of the solution unless you are part of the problem’, (i.e. acknowledging the observer as participant in the system). By working with those who are already inside the system to fix a problem, people gift their knowledge, skills and time to the creating solutions. Furthermore, when people informally congregate to solve problems, power is shared across the whole network because admission to the network is is based on skills and knowledge, rather than positional power.

“We have to abandon the conceit that isolated personal actions are going to solve this crisis. Our policies have to shift.”

– Al Gore

This is not to say that we just let people do whatever they want without regard to probity or best practice.  It does mean that innovation flourishes in an atmosphere of collaboration which acts as an incubator to test ideas, raise risky issues, and solve problems.

The role of collaboration and engagement

If successful collaboration depends on active relationships to establish value-creation networks, then engagement sits at the heart of collaboration.  Gallup research shows that individuals who rate their answer to Question 3 I do what they do best every day will be almost thirty percent more productive than other employees.  Similarly, while the Best Friend at Work question may appear challenging on the face of it, having someone to relate to and confide in, strengthens engagement and the formation of value creation networks.  Collaboration facilitates the contribution of strengths to a project.

If collaboration and active relationships are important, is this just about playing nicely?

While it’s true that collaboration does provide an emotional pay-off in the form of engagement, however, it’s much more than that. It’s about recognising that people form connections  as part of the human drive for social systems, and how to make the most of these connections to create value.

We need to be willing to risk embarrassment, ask silly questions, surround ourselves with people who don’t know what we’re talking about. We need to leave behind the safety of our expertise.”

– Jonah Lehre, Author

How can we as leaders, better transform our organization into one that is more open to collaboration and therefore more innovative and efficient?

Here are our Ten Lessons for Leaders:

  1. Get started on the pathway to collaboration by taking a recent success and finding out who contributed, how they describe their experiences, and notice the unexpected factors critical to their success.
  2.  Think of the people in your organisation you want to ‘clone’ because of their ability to get work done  quickly and easily.  Ask them to describe their networks, what they are doing and how you can support their success.
  3.  Support collaboration across your own organisation by asking natural networkers in each part of the business how they achieve collaboration, and invite their suggestions about how to start a value creation network to work on a particular challenge faced by the organisation.
  4.  In a fast paced and complex environment, it can sometimes feel like reflection is a luxury. By dedicating a specific time to what your team is learning and who is contributing to success, then you can factor these insights into your future action.
  5.  Listen to learn and learn to listen – resolve to be present and give multi-tasking, competition, and interrupting a miss.
  6.  Be willing to share both the credit and the risks in a collaborative venture.
  7.  Before deciding to change part of the organisation or process, ask what needs to be preserved, in terms of the knowledge network.
  8.  Remember to reward the contribution of the larger network in the success of any venture.
  9.  Up front agree some informal guidelines for how the collaboration will share information, resolve disputes, and give participants the benefit of the doubt.
  10.  Lead the collaborative process rather than the group. Support your people’s efforts at collaboration by providing information, direction and purpose.  Understand that leadership will shift as different talents and skills are called for at different phases of the project.



  1. Sandow and Allen.  the Nature of Social Collaboration – how work really gets done.  Reflection, vol. 6 Number 3 reflections.solonline.org
  2. http://ctb.ku.edu/en/tablecontents/sub_section_main_1874.aspx
  3. Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, and Flower.  Awakening Faith in an Alternative Future.  A consideration of Presence:  Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, vol. 5 Number 7 reflections.solonline.org
  4. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, 1995
  5. Kahane, The Language of Love and the Language of Power:  Solving Tough Problems in Practice, vol. 8 Number 3 reflections.solonline.org
  6. Bradford and Cohen.  Power up – transforming organizations through shared leadership (1998)
  7. Tushman and O’Reilly. Winning through innovation 2002.
  8. Chris Howard, Presentation and Platform Skills Training (audio programme).

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