Issue # 11 - Collaboration

In this issue, you will find:

1. A discussion of collaboration in organizations

2. A summary of the book Teamwork is an Individual Skill, by Christopher Avery with Meri Aaron Walker & Erin O'Toole Murphy (Berrett-Koehler, 2001)

3. Pointers to additional information on this topic



One of the key ways that you can increase your organization's capacity to achieve its goals is through collaboration-within your organization, between yours and others within your company, and across corporate boundaries.

There are four key points that we want to make about collaboration, why it's unavoidable and therefore essential to your success, and what's required to enable it in your organization.

First, The Nature Of Things Today Is That They Are Very Complex. Complexity has increased dramatically and noticeably in just the past ten years, and its effects are compounded. Problems, opportunities for innovation, the products and solutions that many of you design, create, and/or build are so complex that they can no longer be solved, invented, or designed by one person working alone or by completing pieces separately and then integrating them later. The various parts or aspects of complex solutions must be developed in relationship to each other or else the pieces will not fit or work together, and why they won't work will not be readily apparent later. It is frequently the failure to develop integrated solutions and the resulting need to fix or redesign them that creates or contributes to time-to-market problems, cost overruns, and field failure.

Therefore, Interdependence Is The Universal Condition. Managing interdependence requires that we be able to work cooperatively and in conjunction with others who have relevant and complimentary knowledge or skills to bring to bear on a particular problem, usually one in which the participants have a shared interest. This way of working is collaboration, and we must find ways to enable it if we want to leverage the ideas and creativity of many to address complex issues. It's worth noting that collaboration is as much an orientation or way of being as it is a way of working. "Collaborating" only when it serves our own interest does little to build the trust or solid relationships that are required for successful interdependent and collaborative initiatives. We need to understand interdependence as an ongoing condition that supports the needs of the parties over time, not just when it's convenient.

Collaboration Doesn't Happen By Accident. The capacity and structures that enable collaboration within and across organization boundaries must be designed into the infrastructure and culture of the company. Most companies have been set up or evolved in ways that are more likely to promote and reward individual rather than collaboration action. In most companies, corporate strategies now require collaborative activity in order for them to be successfully executed. But the existing structure, rewards, and processes frequently inhibit collaboration, and employees perceive it to be disadvantageous to them in terms of both formal and informal rewards and recognition. It is often not well understood by senior management why employees don't, won't, or are unable to work more collaboratively, despite verbal encouragement to do so. If we remember that form follows function, not the other way around, then we can move to designing organizations that support necessary behaviors and interactions.

Teams Are For Collaboration. Extensive research with consistent results has shown that cross-functional and cross-organizational teams are the single best structure for successful collaboration. Steep hierarchies frequently require permission seeking while discouraging initiative taking, thus inhibiting collaborative behavior and, in particular, successful teams. Research also shows that there are clearly identifiable attributes of successful teams as well as necessary conditions that support them. These, also, do not occur by accident.

So If What You Want And Need Is Increased Collaboration Within Your Organization And With Others, it's essential that you pay attention to and invest in an organization design, infrastructure, and culture that supports, encourages, and enables this way of working.


2. Teamwork Is an Individual Skill by Christopher Avery with Meri Aaron Walker & Erin O'Toole Murphy (Berrett-Koehler, 2001)

As modern organizations are designed to enhance the power of collaboration, they rely more and more on teams. It is only through teamwork that the ideas and creativity of many people can be brought to bear on a complex problem. Because teams involve a number of people, we have historically thought of teamwork as a group skill. There is, of course, a definite group dynamic at work in every team and knowledge of, and the ability to work within it is of utmost importance. On the other hand, Avery, Walker, & Murphy remind us that every team member must take responsibility for the quality and productivity of his or her team. The central skills embodied in a good "teamworker" are the ability to:

  • keep agreements
  • be open to others' ideas
  • present a personal viewpoint logically and objectively
  • self-criticize and receive others' feedback with equanimity
  • motivate others (without manipulation)
  • complete tasks and achieve results

The authors refer to a person with these skills, and a collaborative mindset, as someone with "TeamWisdom." They dislike the term "team player" as they believe that phrase has come to mean someone who goes along with the group without passion or commitment. Those with TeamWisdom, on the other hand, will not go along with something about which they have strong reservations. Always remembering that they are responsible for the team's results, people with TeamWisdom insist on keeping discussion open until true consensus is attained. They know that once the team has reached consensus, it will have clear direction and renewed energy to complete its tasks. Taking responsibility also means cleaning up any broken agreements, and the authors give us a model for how to do that without the need to blame others or leave the team.

As for conflict in teams, the authors tell us that "when disagreements arise in a relationship, it pays to treat them as an opportunity to learn. It is unwise to squelch disagreement, cover it up, or take offense - even when we are an expert in what the group is doing" (p.69).

After introducing their concepts, Avery et al take us through chapters entitled Creating Powerful Partnerships, Collaborating on Purpose, Trusting Just Right, and the Collaborative Mindset, giving helpful hints for building and using TeamWisdom in each of those arenas. Each chapter cites examples, and sprinkled throughout the pages are quotes from those who are trying to build TeamWisdom in their organizations. We are given both Personal and Team Challenges at the end of each section. These "challenges" are quite helpful questions and tasks designed to help readers integrate and implement each section's ideas in our own unique situations.

Debunking one of the myths of teamwork, the book states that "anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. It is far better to commit to fumbling one's way up the learning curve than to avoid any chance of making a mistake" (p.183). This is one of many thought-provoking ideas in the book.

We at millpond join the authors in wishing you a world of productive relationships at work.


3. Websites and Other Resources we've found about this topic include:
This is the website for the Center for the Study of Work Teams at University of North Texas. It's a great source for all kinds of information about teams and offers a great links page.
This site calls itself "the place on the web for virtual work." It also has a good links page.
This is Pegasus Communications' site and it's the gateway to all kinds of information about systems thinking. They publish a catalogue of resources, a newsletter called The Systems Thinker, and an e-zone called Leverage Points. You can sign up to receive the e-zine at


The Collaborative Enterprise: Why Links Across the Corporation Often Fail and How to Make Them Work by Andrew Campbell and Michael Goold (that's not a typo - there are two o's) (Perseus Press, 1999).

These authorities on multibusiness strategy show how to overcome barriers to synergy and achieve real collaboration across the company.

The Wisdom of Team: Creating the High-Performance Organization by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith (Harper Business, 1993).

This is a classic on teams and team-based organizations and what's required in order for them to realize their potential.


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