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Nilofer Merchant

October 10, 2014 by Speakers' Spotlight

Don’t Fear Collaboration: It Unlocks The Future

A bestselling author on innovation and collaboration, a TED speaker, and a business leader with 20 years of experience, Nilofer Merchant challenges audiences to do more than just think differently—she asks them to act differently. Merchant has personally launched more than 100 products that, in total, have netted 18 billion dollars. Her leadership and business models encourage innovation and growth, and she collaborates with teams to create this enduring advantage. Here, Nilofer posits that the future of work is collaborative, and that this needs to be embraced, not feared:

At its minimum, collaboration creates once-elusive ‘buy-in’ or ’empowerment’, but it’s also been proven to improve problem solving, increases creativity and is a growth driver at global companies such as Lego, Pixar and Intuit. Collaboration slashes costs and improves productivity.

You’d think with so much going for it, it would be more common – less ‘futuristic’ and more the thing everyone is doing because it matters. But there’s one gigantic reason collaboration is not more widely adopted and that’s because collaboration is dangerous.

If you’ve ever done a collaborative effort, you’ll recognise this truth. That’s because the first step in collaboration is resolving a basic challenge: getting people to take a big step away from what they already know and control, to joining something larger and potentially being let down. For some, this step feels like a precipice. There are several specific reasons why it appears dangerous:

1. Unclear or uncomfortable roles

The role and responsibilities in the collaboration space tend not to be hierarchical; they are often fluid, changing from phase to phase of the work. This can be especially hard for senior executives, because it may mean taking off their mantle of being the ‘chief of answers’ and becoming part of the ‘tribe of doing things’.

2. Fear of fighting

Collaborating means dealing with conflicting priorities. ‘Turf’ isn’t always clear. If you avoid conflict, or don’t know how to fight effectively, nothing will happen. Knowing how to debate the trade-offs between many viable options means knowing how to argue with each other about the business in more open and visible ways.

3. Not knowing the answer

The fundamental premise of collaboration is that you can use it to solve complex problems that are beyond the function of one domain or expertise. That means that each participant needs to be comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity. Most people have built their careers and perhaps even their identity on being the expert. No-one likes feeling ignorant.

4. More work

Often, collaboration happens on top of other work. Participants are already plenty busy with their ‘day job’ and the new project may be especially stressful because of this. Until the problems that any collaboration project is aimed to fix gets solved, a collaboration project can often be overwhelming. It means leaders must do more than just tell people what to do. It also means people within the organisation have to do more than say, “Hey, that thing is broken”, and then delicately walk away.

5. It’s hard to know who to praise and who to blame.

Collaborative projects are judged on the outcome, more than the individual efforts that went into them (which are hard to even measure). Leaders have less visibility into who did what. If things go right, they worry about rewarding the wrong people. If things go wrong, they complain about no longer having a single ‘throat to choke’.

Collaborative work is not right for every organisation, or in every case. Research shows it works best for organisations that need to solve problems across different parts of the business, where cross-pollination of ideas improves the output, where speed to market is crucial, and where getting people to co-own the solution will create more velocity in the execution of the work.

I believe collaboration will save the future. Collaboration unlocks talent and ideas that we have yet to access. That’s the great opportunity of our businesses and what businesses here in Ireland need to focus on.

In all cases, there are ways to manage each of these dangers with a specific ‘how’ that will allow people to step into the unknown, create new solutions, and get to the other side of a problem.

However, let’s recognise this one simple fact: we can’t invent the future without changing the ways in which we work.

By Nilofer Merchant/Irish Times/October, 2014