3 lessons for collaboration

Organizations won’t reap the rewards of powerful collaboration tools if they don’t make collaboration itself a strategic priority.

It’s wonderful that organizations today have access to a treasure trove of powerful software tools designed to enhance, amplify and optimize benefits accruing from collaboration. But having access to, and even acquiring, such tools isn’t sufficient to realize the benefits. Your organization will not unlock the full value of this treasure trove unless it makes collaboration a strategic priority.

From research I have done on the new collaboration space, I see three lessons for today’s leaders. 

Lesson 1: The power of collaboration can’t be tapped absent a desire to collaborate

If collaboration is not within your repertoire of skills, how can you even know what you are missing?

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has been used to illustrate many truths, so allow me to press it into service on behalf of collaboration. In The Republic, Plato depicts mankind as prisoners seated on a bench facing the wall of a cave. The people on the benches can’t move their heads; they can only look forward. (There is no collaboration.) Behind them is a fire, and between the prisoners’ backs and the fire are people carrying around plaster images of things that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. All that the people on the benches can see are the shadows. Their conception of the world in which they live derives entirely from what they make of those shadows. 

Only collaboration with someone who has a broader perspective would allow the prisoners on the bench to emerge from the shadows and become aware of what is really going on. But the bigger point is this: Workers in a 21st-century organization who have no real experience of collaboration are like those prisoners in that they don’t even know that they are missing something — that the shadows they are seeing do not constitute all of reality.

The challenge for leaders is to bring this realization home to non-collaborators. They need to a) create awareness that collaboration has benefits, and b) engender a desire to collaborate on the part of the entire workforce. 

Lesson 2: Understand your collaboration tool

One of the hardest-to-learn strategic truths of our age of rapid and disruptive technology change is that buying technology does not produce strategic benefit. Applying technology is where the value lies. To apply technology and realize its full potential, you must understand the technology. 

There are at least two components of understanding technology: how to use it, and where or when to use. In many cases (think Microsoft Office or SAP), the how-to-use component can be addressed with pre-deployment employee training. Such training ensures that employees don’t neglect a technology’s deep capabilities (so they don’t use a powerful collaboration tool for instant messaging and little else). 

There is the question of how long it takes someone new to a given collaboration technology to become facile in its use. This in turn gives rise to a second-order assessment: Is it more effective to train existing employees on how to use the technology or hire new employees who already know how to use the technology? 

Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing, leader of American forces in Europe during World War I, faced this very question. To fight a modern war — and to manage all the materiel and human resources associated with fighting a modern war — Pershing needed telephone operators. In The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers, we learn that most telephone operators were women. Rather than training up existing personnel (in the U.S. Army of 1917, virtually all men), Pershing personally recruited 200 women who “braved shot, shell and submarines to operate the army’s vital communications systems overseas.”

Hopefully, “shot, shell and submarines” aren’t hazards facing recruits to your organization, but if collaboration isn’t part of your culture, you might need your own Hello Girls. To be clear, I’m not talking about hiring more women (though if you do, that would be great) or replacing your staff with young people who collaborate naturally. I’m talking about adding staff who understand collaboration and can impart its benefits to your experienced employees. Moving to a more collaborative style requires a cultural change; it’s not something that is absorbed in a quick training session. 

Lesson 3: Listen to everyone in your collaboration network

Can there be such a thing as too much collaboration? Yes, and it’s called “groupthink,” a concept defined in the 1960s by Irving Janis, a Yale psychologist who needed to answer President Kennedy’s question following the Bay of Pigs fiasco: “How could we have been so stupid?”  

Janis depicted groupthink as a “pattern of concurrence-seeking,” when members of a decision-making body “adhered to group norms and pressures toward uniformity, even when their policy was working badly and had unintended consequences that disturbed the conscience of the members. … Members consider loyalty to the group the highest form of morality.”

In environments suffering from groupthink, the desire to “get along” and be collegial gets in the way of critical thinking. Groupthink has the consequence of cutting decision-makers off from thinkers and from ideas that either are not consistent with or are threatening to group consensus. To overcome groupthink, group members have to recognize the Cassandras among them. 

To return to ancient Greece, Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy, was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo in a failed act of seduction. When Cassandra didn’t yield to the god, he took revenge. He couldn’t withdraw his gift, but he ensured that her accurate prophecies would never be believed. Thus, when she warned, in Homer’s Iliad, of the danger of “Greeks bearing gifts” (the Trojan horse), she was ignored. 

That brings us to Constructing Cassandra: Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA, 1947-2001, in which Milo Jones and Philippe Silberzahn look at four strategic surprises in the first decades of the CIA’s existence, a “strategic surprise” being defined by them as “the sudden realization that one has been operating on the basis of an erroneous threat assessment that results in a failure to anticipate a grave threat to ‘vital’ national interests.” The problem, in a way, was not that Cassandras were being ignored, as Cassandras are, but that the intelligence community was organized in a way that didn’t allow Cassandras to have access to it.

In a review of the book in “The U.S. Army War College Quarterly Parameters,” Ross W. Clark wrote, “Constructing Cassandra reveals that no matter how good an individual’s starting qualifications, the on-the-job training by their colleagues and superiors usher in unexamined social practices, analytical methodologies, and cultural norms.” 

Lacking Cassandras, the intelligence community needs to “construct” one. It needs to ensure that alternative viewpoints are not filtered out by a sort of natural selection or drummed out by cultural pressure. Cassandras do not — like the broken clock that is accurate twice a day — randomly spew predictions. They collect and analyze diverse information streams and come to accurate forecasts, which — for a variety of reasons — are not believed by those in power. 

Are there Cassandras on the outskirts of your collaboration network you should be listening to? And if there are not, that could be an even bigger worry.

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