Many of us recognize intellectually that we need others’ knowledge to solve big problems, yet we still lack the motivation to collaborate.
Teamwork all too often feels inefficient (search and coordination costs eat up time), risky (can I trust others to deliver for my client?), low value (our own area of expertise always seems most critical), and political (a sneaky way of self-promoting to other areas of one’s firm). Lurking behind these reservations may be concerns about losing relevance, becoming one of those “charismatic” leaders so often criticized as “all form, no substance.”
We’ve found in our research that clarifying what collaboration is (and what it isn’t) and gaining firsthand experience with one or more collaborative projects is the only way to combat these common apprehensions. Only after seeing collaboration’s value for yourself will you put in the effort required to seek out cross-disciplinary projects and hone the skills necessary to collaborate effectively.
Know What Collaboration Is — and What It Isn’t
Collaboration is a way of working that attracts and involves people outside one’s formal control, organization, and expertise to accomplish common goals. Understanding what collaboration is not is a crucial part of getting better at it.
Collaboration is not a style. Many people naively see collaboration as a leadership style in which relationships take precedence over the task at hand. But collaboration is not consensus. On the contrary, clarity about where the buck stops is one of the most critical enablers of efficient teamwork.
Collaboration is not “cross-selling.” Another common misconception is that collaboration is cross-selling, the practice of suggesting new services or products, usually under another colleague’s purview, to an existing client. But this sort of simple hand-off is a far cry from working across organizational or disciplinary silos to holistically tackle sophisticated problems.
Collaboration is not always the answer. Former Ogilvy CEO Charlotte Beers was famous for saying, “Collaboration is highly overrated when you don’t have the right thing to do.” Collaboration is suitable for certain tasks and unsuitable for others. Too often, people will try to collaborate on everything, and wind up in endless meetings, debating ideas and struggling to find consensus.
Gain Firsthand Experience
It’s one thing to acknowledge the value of collaboration intellectually; it’s another to internalize its potential so fully that you proactively seek more collaboration opportunities and that collaborative skills become central to your professional identity. Neither the true benefits of collaboration nor the required skill set adjustments, however, become apparent until you’ve made a go of it. Here are a few ways to get started.
Contribute to someone else’s project. Coming to know how and when to collaborate is a learning process. Working with old hands before you forge a project of your own helps you pick up the routines, processes, and tools that make collaboration efficient. This insider knowledge can also help you identify future situations when collaboration is smart and most likely to pay off.
For example, one earthquake engineer, Stuart, had a career breakthrough when he joined a large structural investigation project led by a team of senior partners in his firm. He applied his specialized expertise to help this team evaluate the impact of construction-induced vibration on surrounding public transportation infrastructure. In the process, he and the whole team came to realize how valuable his knowledge could be to projects outside his narrow space.
Work on your network. Two of the biggest barriers to collaboration are ignorance about others’ expertise and mistrust in their ability to meet your expectations. Building your network can help solve both problems. A crucial asset is your relationships with “connectors,” people who already bridge specialty domains and organizational boundaries and who can refer you to potential collaborators. Not only do connectors help you identify the expertise you need — they also serve as “honest brokers,” vetting potential collaborators’ competence and character. In much the same way, your network builds your reputation as a trustworthy person, attracting projects and colleagues to you that you otherwise would not have sought out.
Be a good citizen. Most firms have projects that cut across lines of business, hierarchical levels, and functional specialties. These temporary assignments are well worth the time investment. They allow you to acquire new skills, gain a big-picture perspective, increase your connections, and may very well spark ideas for future collaborative opportunities.
Take Maaike, a newly appointed partner in a global consulting firm. Despite having a full plate of client projects, she signed up to work on a massive survey to understand the concerns of chief operating officers. Reflecting on her experience, she says: “I’m astonished by what I learned that I could immediately use to upgrade my own work. I never realized that we have behavioral economists on staff who can apply psychological and cognitive research to help clients with technology implementation projects. Working with them to develop the COO survey showed me how valuable they are, and we later teamed up to pitch — and win — a major new project. I also developed a mutual appreciation with other service lines, like our outsourcing and risk advisory groups, and have been invited onto pitches with them.”
Be strategic about what projects you take on. More isn’t necessarily better — in fact, it’s often worse. Some professionals end up taking on too many small projects, often where they’re routinely applying their specialist knowledge to a small slice of the engagement. They incur the high switching costs of constantly coming up to speed on a new project, but few of the benefits. They’re not a core member of the team, so they get lower exposure to others’ knowledge and therefore are less likely to be in the room when the real “aha” moment happens. And because they’re deployed with such a restricted scope, they probably get less credit for the project’s success.
Many of today’s most important challenges are so complex and multifaceted that they can only be tackled by teams of experts from disparate domains. To solve them, professionals must be able to harness ideas, people, and resources from across disciplinary and organizational boundaries. Finding a first project to work on is the best way to start.
This article first appeared on hbr.org.