Harvard Business Review on Collaboration

I just finished reading the July-August 2011 issue of HBR, where the featured theme on the cover is “Collaborate: Build a culture of trust and innovation.” Here are my quick summaries of the five articles:

1. Herminia Ibarra and Morten T. Hansen, “Are you a collaborative leader?” Begins with a story about Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com (see my post from the Davos WEF in January 2011). For an offsite meeting of 200 senior executives, Benioff decided to open the meeting virtually to all 5,000 employees, using an information sharing tool they’d developed called Chatter. Every manager at the meeting was given an iPod Touch and encouraged to comment in real time during the meeting, and employees could read and reply. Large monitors displayed all of the postings in real time. “The event served as a catalyst for the creation of a more open and empowered culture at the company.” The take-home messages: Make global connections; engage diverse talent; collaborate at the top to model expectations; show a strong hand to speed decisions.

2. Yochai Benkler, “The unselfish gene.” Basically is an excerpt from his August 2011 book The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest. I liked this review of the latest thinking in evolutionary biology and microeconomics. It’s probably the most scholarly of the articles.

3. John Abele, “Bringing Minds Together.” Abele cofounded Boston Scientific in 1979, and retired from the board in May 2011. I was surprised to learn that he owns the Kingbridge Centre, a classy conference center outside Ontario where I’ve done keynote talks more than once. I liked this article for its examples of collaborative leadership–people who are able to foster a collaborative network, particularly to champion disruptive innovation. His best story is of how Andreas Gruentzig worked collaboratively to convince surgeons to use his invention, the balloon catheter, which enlarged narrowed arteries without surgery. A challenging task, since surgeons were the ones most directly affected and they were potential enemies.

4. Paul Adler, Charles Heckscher, and Laurence Prusak, “Building a collaborative enterprise.” The main story in this article is of Computer Sciences Corporation and their Capability Maturity Model (CMM). What I took from this article is the importance of balancing structure and flexibility to maximize the power of collaboration. CMM is actually highly structured, but it channels collaboration and creativity more effectively than the absence of structure.

5. Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks, “Who moved my cube?” I liked this story about how architecture can, and cannot, foster collaboration. Many companies have experimented with new floor layouts designed to foster interaction and spontaneous conversations, but many of them have had disappointing results. This article explains why: you need proximity, but also two other things: privacy (one solution is to have lots of alcoves where people can retreat once a conversation gets started) and permission (a culture where casual conversation is encouraged).

An interesting set of articles, but nothing radical or new, if you’ve been following the latest writings on collaboration. Most of what’s in these articles you could find in my 2007 book Group Genius, for example. But if you’re not aware of this work, then this issue of HBR is a fine place to start.