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Only Connect

Collaboration is one of the most pressing issues in modern business; both internal and external collaboration.

Business experts such as Gillian Tett and Heidi Gardner all cite the excessive presence of silos in organisations as one of the most significant barriers to success for many modern businesses.

There are numerous blocks to collaboration, many of which are in our own mind: the fear of being undermined, not valued or losing some political advantage. But these mindsets are often the result of how organisations and their definitions of success are structured.

It’s obviously not as simple as saying “Collaborate more.” Barriers preventing this need to be addressed by leadership, namely creating a culture and setting purpose for a team which makes collaboration natural. But what needs to be factored in to create this is the importance of human contact and personal connections.

In EM Forster’s novella The Machine Stopsmost of humanity lives underground in isolated rooms with most of their needs met by the omnipotent machine. Communications are all made via a messaging/video conferencing facility. This all seem quite prescient in our hyper connected but often isolated age; even more extraordinary given it was written in 1909! What Forster is certain of is that the machine based connection is not a replacement for real human connectivity. The same is true for combating silos. We have to use human connections to create collaboration and leaders become key in creating the conditions for this to happen.

I’ve been reflecting on collaboration recently, particularly as it’s presented itself since I have been running my own business.

For me there have been two strands. One are those areas where you need collaboration as practically you do not have the bandwidth to cope with all problems and issues on your own: it’s just not a good use of my time to try and build my own website! But collaboration is not just a necessity around business support for me but also now a luxury.

When it becomes really exciting is when you’re able to bounce ideas off and make plans with others who bring different skill sets and experiences and both work together to build a bigger picture. But what’s also a necessity around this sort of collaboration is the connectivity to others it gives people like myself, who may predominantly work alone. The exposure to different ideas and different ways of doing things becomes something I now actively seek out.

What surprised me was how exciting the freedom to collaborate was once I was able to. What, then, stops many organizations having that agility? I think it often comes down to structural and leadership issues. What stopped me previously were often to do with the way success was perceived in different organisations and the way that internal competition, whether explicit or implicit, could prevent colleagues actually being collegiate. A lot of this is built around our fear, collective or individual.

What’s needed is leaders who can see the need for and implement strategies for smart collaboration to combat this fearfulness. Recently my colleague, Abigail Harris at Global Leaders in Law spoke to Harvard Law School Professor Heidi Gardner about the need for collaboration but specifically smart collaboration. Smart collaboration is the bringing together of different areas of expertise to solve complex business problems which one one individual could not solve on their own.

What makes smart collaboration so necessary at the moment, according to Heidi Gardner is down to two trends:

“The first trend is that problems today are increasingly complicated. In-house counsel are working in a VUCA environment (volatility, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) with broad, multifaceted problems. The second trend is expertise specialisation. Lawyers are becoming increasingly specialised and so are the people they work with. In-house legal teams today comprise not only lawyers but people with niche skills such as technologists, pricing experts, and operations specialists.”

For Gardner, leadership and strategy are significant building blocks for collaboration:

“It all has to start with strategy: the GC or the in-house lawyers need to very carefully define what is the strategy of their group and make sure that aligns with the overall organisational strategy. The outcome should be a clear articulation of how they add value to the business. In turn, that analysis will be a direct indicator of how they should go about collaborating.”

Gillian Tett In her book The Silo Effect charts how silos can be incredibly destructive and tell the stories of some well known examples such as Sony and UBS. What’s significant in these stories is how leaders’ actions are incredibly important in creating the conditions where collaboration can happen or not!

Tett identifies four ways in which leaders can make collaboration more likely: Keeping internal boundaries fluid to give more opportunities to collaborate; pay and incentives focused more on project outcomes and team work rather than individual success; ensuring information flows throughout the organisation and finally allowing people the opportunity to reimagine the taxonomies of their organisations.

These also intersect with the conditions identified to create a more conducive work culture generally. Introducing freedom is key, but freedom needs to be balanced by trust. Despite our technologically connected world the most powerful way to stimulate trust is connecting people. Sometimes the best way to do that is letting down our professional masks. A legal team I have worked with on a report on changing culture found an useful exercise to create an infographic on their legal team showing not just diversity in the usual sense but also diversities of interest and connections people had outside of work such as owning pets, having done a skydive - also showing their human side.

Heidi Gardner agrees that this personal connection is fundamental:

“If people aren’t located together the leader needs to make the most of technology and conduct business in a web supported video environment. When people communicate in a rich environment where they can see each other’s expressions, have that familiarity and increase the level of interpersonal trust it is much more likely then that they will engage in the type of collaboration that the leader really needs them to undertake.”

In some cases rotating individuals around departments can be a way to introduce greater collaboration as these individuals serve as “culture brokers” as Gardner defines them. Whilst prioritizing all modes of connections most general counsel and other leaders also see the benefits of trying to bring disparate team members together, even every few years, for off sites or meetings where they can connect as people first.

In the epigraph to his novel Howard’s End Forster used the epigraph ‘only connect.’ And Forster’s work emphasises the fundamental importance of this personal connectivity; it’s still a message we need to listen to and look for opportunities to make this happen in our professional lives and beyond.


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