When Collaboration Makes Sense (and When it Doesn’t)

Do you know what the tallest tree in the world is??  If you visit or live in California, you may have seen the giant sequoia.

These redwood trees reach over 300 feet and many can boast a circumference of over 100 feet. It is not just their size that inspires, but their longevity. The oldest living sequoia is 3,300 years old. They are resistant to disease, fire, fungi, and insects. Indeed, these trees seem invincible.

Of all the amazing features of the sequoia, perhaps its root system is the most impressive and surprising.

As it grows it spreads its roots far and wide—sometimes 200–300 feet in every direction, but not deep.  The entire root system is generally only about 20-30 feet below the surface of the earth. It seems improbable that such a shallow root system could support so massive a tree.  The key is how the roots weave together with the roots of other sequoias, building a vast network of stability and growth.

Want More Collaboration?

One of the most common goals I hear from senior leaders is for their managers to collaborate more.  There is a strong belief that collaboration, a willingness and ability to help others achieve a common goal, will produce significantly better results.  Like the roots of the giant sequoias, the more leaders support, align, and weave together, the stronger and more growth-ready the organization can become.

However, collaboration carries a downside if overused and overvalued.  Disengagement, loss of productivity, and cynicism emerge when collaboration is attempted when it should not be.  The worst is when collaboration becomes its own goal—when it is done simply for its own sake.  We’ve all been in countless meetings held in the name of collaboration, which unfortunately achieved little progress.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a firm advocate of the power of collaboration within teams and across business units to accomplish amazing results.  Leaders and organizations, like the sequoias, can do great things when they work together instead of apart.

Focused Collaboration

So, to help leaders effectively use and not begrudge collaboration, it is time to clarify when it makes sense and when it does not.  The following is a three-part approach called Focused Collaboration that enables a leader to know how and when collaboration should be used.

Using the Focused Collaboration model will provide a path for leaders to effectively amplify the success of others through collaboration.  (Focused Collaboration is influenced by the great work that Morten T. Hansen did in his 2009 book, Collaboration, Harvard Business Review Press.)

#1: Identify Opportunities

The first step in using collaboration effectively is to determine which topics or challenges are the right fit.  There are four variables to consider when finding the proper application for collaboration:  newness, impact, speed, and effort.

  1. Newness:  When the needed solution is uncertain or unprecedented making the newness factor high, gathering a group of people together can be essential to brainstorm and learn from diverse perspectives.
  2. Impact:  When the issue is going to bring a significant cost-saving, revenue increase, or market share change, creating a team of people to work on the issue is a smart approach.
  3. Speed:  When there is a tight timeline and urgency is high, collaboration may not be the best idea.  The exception is if a clear sprint is established to guide the group since collaboration tends to take longer than working alone.
  4. Effort: When the amount of work it takes to solve or address the issue is high, collaboration can be very effective at aligning, distributing, and following up on all of the needed work.

For any potential challenge, each of these factors needs to be examined.  However, it is looking at all of them together that informs whether collaboration is needed or not.

For example, a manufacturing company was debating about how to transition from gas powered to battery engines. This was new technology for the company, it would have large impact to their bottom line, the speed is less of a factor because of their existing market share and cyclical nature of the marketplace, and the effort is high.  Therefore, they chose collaboration to move the project forward.

#2: Manage Barriers

The second step in deciding whether collaboration is the right approach to solve a problem is to discuss the threat of potential barriers.  There are three variables to consider when identifying potential barriers to collaboration:  access, ability, and incentives.  Unless minimized and actively managed, the presence of any of these barriers can quietly destroy a well-intentioned, collaborative effort.

  1. Access:  Having smooth and easy access to information, systems, and people is important to make collaboration work well.  If people are geographically dispersed or information is housed inside a single-person who is resistant to share, then access to critical information and discussion will be harder.  These barriers do not automatically rule out collaboration, but mitigating plans need to be put into place to address these challenges.
  2. Ability:  Having the right skills to communicate ideas, capture knowledge, and respect differing viewpoints is vital for an effective collaborative experience.  When people struggle with resolving conflict, if the culture is too competitive to encourage the sharing of half-baked ideas, or if there are too many other priorities, then the people on the team will have a very hard time helping each other be successful.
  3. Incentives:  Having supportive rewards and incentives provides aligned motivation to encourage collaboration.  When a cross-functional group is created and told to work together toward a common goal, yet each person is rewarded for their own individual effort rather than as a team, the incentive system will work against a collaborative approach.  Just like tracking assists in basketball, methods like peer review can be used to identify and reward those who are truly encouraging the success of others (and not just of their own interests).

#3: Create Solutions

 The third step in achieving the best results with collaboration are figuring out the ways or solutions to achieve the best results.  Collaboration is merely one approach to get results.  It can produce higher levels of buy-in and improve the quality of decisions, but only if the desired results are clear in the first place.  Otherwise, an individual or consultative approach might work much better.

To clarify if collaboration is the best approach to create the right solution, three variables need to be considered:  people, timing, and goals.

  1. People:  Identifying the right people and leadership will make a collaborative approach work more efficiently. Consider the technical and professional skill sets and backgrounds that are needed to provide requisite diversity of thought and action.  Clarify roles on the team, including a designated leader.  Create clear oversight so the team knows to whom they are reporting risks and results.  Also, avoid overwhelming the same 3-5% of your workforce who are consistently picked for team efforts.  Use these gifted collaborators with care to avoid burn out.
  2. Timing:  Identifying the timetable will be key in making sure that collaboration does not drag on and on.  Too often, collaboration results in many, many meetings.  These meetings seem to multiply like rabbits and yet somehow people fill whatever amount of time is provided…and still need more.  Establishing a beginning point, check-ins, and a clear end point prevents unnecessary spinning and wasting time in endless meetings.  Shoot for a 30 or 90 day timeline and keep the pace brisk!
  3. Goals:  Identifying and agreeing upon common goals is vital to the success of a collaborative team.  Yes, the team needs to have a clear objective with everyone describing success in the same way.  However, team members also need to have aligned individual performance goals.  Gathering individuals who each have unrelated performance goals can produce inherent conflict that is difficult to overcome.


The Focused Collaboration model ensures that collaboration is used in the right way to achieve the right results.  It helps leaders answer the important question:  How will collaboration help solve our challenges?

A well-functioning team has deep, interwoven roots, just like the giant sequoia. Using the Focused Collaboration model will help those roots grow together, leveraging the true and often hidden potential within any team and organization.

Free Resource

I created a free resource for you to help you achieve the best results. Click here to access this resource. Share it with your team to help you determine when collaboration makes sense and when it doesn’t.

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