Blog: The 5 disciplines of collaborative leadership


The 5 disciplines of collaborative leadership

According to researchers, most leaders fail to meet this defining moment. Yet it's the job of leaders to get people to work together to make change happen.
The 5 disciplines of collaborative leadership

Anthony was in trouble: because of his success in leading a large R&D team within his organisation, he was now tasked with leading an enterprise-wide digital transformation initiative. “I’ve been able to lead my direct reports effectively, but this,” Anthony hesitated, “this will require influencing and aligning people over whom I have no authority.”

It was a defining moment of leadership for Anthony. Leading a digital transformation requires aligning cross-functional teams, often with a workforce that is geographically dispersed. Could he successfully guide employees in collaborating across the enterprise? 

According to researchers, most leaders fail to meet this defining moment. A relevant study highlighted the inability of colleagues to collaborate effectively. When 80 senior executives from 20 countries and 25 industries were asked what the biggest barriers to long-term strategic execution was, over 76% cited people failing to work together to make change happen.

The truth of the matter is clear: Most leaders simply don’t know how to lead collaborative organisations.

Yet, most professionals want to collaborate. They know that good things happen when they do. When team members have a common language and understanding of collaborative leadership essentials, cross-functional performance quickly improves.

 By modeling and developing the collaborative leadership discipline required to succeed, change will come. There are 5 areas of collaborative leadership that are critical to focus on. These are what Anthony and his team and working towards. And while the digital transformation within his organisation is still in process, the early results are exceeding expectations. 

“We’re seeing levels of ownership, alignment and speed that we haven’t seen with similar initiatives,” Anthony is reporting. “The early results are very encouraging.”

The 5 disciplines of collaborative leadership are : 

Discipline #1: Know why you need to collaborate.

Organisations within industries experiencing hyper-competition and rapid technological changes must innovate to meet evolving customer needs, and to do so employees must collaborate to succeed. Organisations that are stuck in hierarchical, vertical power structures are losing to those companies that orient themselves to delivering value to the market horizontally across the organisation.

As researcher David Teece and others make clear, the tacit knowledge created by cross-functional employee interactions creates a differentiated, competitive advantage. That’s because the social capital created among employees – not by singular employees – can’t be replicated by competitors.

If teams want to win, they must collaborate.

Discipline #2: Know what collaboration is.

Many assume most people know what collaboration is, however, this is not the case.  Most people describe collaboration with the words partner, team, cooperate, and coordinate, used as synonyms for collaboration. 

Those types of interactions, however, are not the same as collaboration. Collaboration is the act of dispersing power to activate a group’s collective talents, accelerate the development of relational capital and alignment to new knowledge.

The words “dispersing power” are essential in this definition. This means that power flows to ideas rather than to the people with the greatest authority. This is quite different than coordinating work, where team members integrate plans; collaboration is also different than cooperating, where employees assist and support peers as they execute their plans.

Discipline #3: Know when to collaborate.

This must be emphasised: Successful collaborative leaders know when not to collaborate. 

When well-intentioned leaders don’t know when to collaborate, they can ruin their brand and reputation. Because effective collaboration is in such high demand within most organisations, the default for some employees is to collaborate as often as possible. But this only creates slow organisations as too many employees are collaborating too often.

Employees should only collaborate when: 1) They know the new knowledge that must be created cannot be created by one person, 2) Collaborating will save time and resources, and 3) Collaborating will accelerate and strengthen alignment and ownership of plans among stakeholders.

Discipline #4: Know how to collaborate.

“I used to get frustrated when I heard people say, ‘We need to collaborate,’” Anthony said. “Because that meant we’d be subjected to endless meetings and consensus-style decision making. Now that we know collaboration is not a decision-making process we’re moving far faster and effectively.”

The leader who knows how to lead collaboration engages stakeholders in the generation of new knowledge through divergent thinking. Then, knowing the value of collaboration expires if it is continued too long, the leader moves the team into convergent thinking. This is when the team moves out of collaboration and into coordination. Here, the person with the responsibility to make the decision facilitates that outcome or declares the decision. 

Discipline #5: Know with whom to collaborate.

Collaboration is a powerful method for creating new knowledge, aligning employees, and saving resources. It is also a brilliant way to create a culture of inclusion. When team members get to participate in important discoveries, it elevates the employee experience.

A big problem occurs, however, for the non-disciplined leader who believes that inclusion only means included. When too many people are invited to collaborate the other disciplines of the collaborative leader cannot be upheld. Then, value to the organisation plummets.

Inclusion means employees feel valued and know that they are provided with equal access to opportunities and resources. While collaboration can facilitate the feeling of inclusion, the successful leader knows there are other mechanisms to accomplish an inclusive culture.

Collaborative leaders, therefore, are disciplined in inviting those stakeholders that will best create new knowledge and drive faster outcomes because of their participation.

Leaders like Anthony have shared that the disciplines of collaborative leadership are largely common sense. “But until now we suffered because we didn’t have the shared awareness or common language to put the wisdom into practice,” Anthony said.

Leading collaboration requires five disciplines: Knowing why to collaborate, what collaboration is (and what it is not), when and how to collaborate, as well as with whom. With practice every leader can succeed in delivering a defining leadership moment occurring within most organisations: leading collaboration across the enterprise. 


This article was first published in September 2021.

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Topics: Leadership, Strategic HR, #GuestArticle

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