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The Collaboration Issue

How collaboration can connect relationships to revenue

Harvard researcher Heidi K. Gardner reveals how organizations can improve collaboration and perform better as a business.

Words by Annie Atherton

If there’s anyone who could co-author an entire book with their spouse without it ending in divorce, it’s Heidi K. Gardner.

That’s because Gardner, a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School and business consultant, has been studying collaboration—and teaching others how to master it—for more than twenty years. Her latest contribution to the topic is Smarter Collaboration: A New Approach to Breaking Down Barriers and Transforming Work. This new book draws on a mountain of empirical data and interviews with executives to provide real-world, actionable examples of how leaders can foster better collaboration at work. 

For Gardner, the process of writing the book offered the ultimate test in practicing what she preaches. For more than a year, she worked closely with her co-author Ivan A. Matviak—a seasoned executive who also happens to be her husband—on writing Smarter Collaboration and filling its 320 pages with research-backed insights into the often tricky art of workplace collaboration. The couple even took their laptops on vacation and, at one point, found themselves reviewing edits together on a Danube river cruise.

As the global economy—not to mention the very nature of work—continues to change rapidly, the couple believes that no leader can afford to overlook the importance of collaboration.

“Many times, we had really heated debates,” Gardner says. “But then we could be like, ‘Hey, do you want to go have breakfast?’ and we could leave it behind.” 

Smarter Collaboration explores topics like integrating staff after a merger, encouraging cross-functional engagement, and restructuring an organization so that multiple lines of business serve clients. This tactic can often boost revenue.

“This is not just anecdotal,” says Gardner of their methodology’s success rate. “We can measure it statistically, showing that when organizations engage in smarter collaboration, they perform better, have higher revenues and profitability, attract and retain better talent, innovate faster, and actually lower the enterprise risk.”

The benefits of smarter collaboartion, according to author Heidi K. Gardner.

Better collaboration has a variety of positive ripple effects, says Harvard professor and author Heidi K. Gardner.

Collaboration is a topic that has been discussed previously by Gardner, whose firm, Gardner & Co., partners with organizations to drive change by applying the findings from her research. In 2017, Gardner wrote the best-selling book Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos, which explored the topic with a specific focus on professional service firms. 

Gardner and Matviak widen the aperture in this new book to view how collaboration works at various organizations, from tech startups to large enterprises.

As the global economy —not to mention the very nature of work —continues to change rapidly, the couple believes that no leader can afford to overlook the importance of collaboration. The Workback recently sat down with Gardner to learn why. 

The Workback has edited the following exchange for clarity and brevity.

How did you first get interested in collaboration?

When I was working with McKinsey and Company and looking at the teams I was leading, I saw that some were far more successful than others. But why? With that burning question, I left the consulting world in 2002 to go back for my Ph.D., and I’ve been working on the problem ever since.

It’s been fulfilling because we can document a huge range of incredible, positive results from smarter collaboration. 

We can actually measure it statistically and show that when organizations engage in smarter collaboration, they perform better, have higher revenues, and can attract better talent. They also innovate faster and create more high-powered, market-leading innovations. It’s very gratifying to see that some of the organizations we started working with five years ago now have quantifiable positive results in various metrics.

Common barriers to workplace collaboration

Common barriers to workplace collaboration include a lack of trust and a lack of confidence.

Why is collaboration such a challenge for so many organizations?

It’s fair to say that companies are struggling with [collaboration]. The barriers are different from one place to the next. In an organization that has just gone through a merger, there might be trust issues between the people from the two legacy companies. You may have a lack of confidence in people’s skills and abilities. 

Then some people are uncomfortable with the idea of conflict. Bringing people together with very different ideas demands that they debate and challenge one another. Managing that kind of task-related conflict and not having it bleed over into interpersonal friction is a real skill. 

There are other challenges around leadership and creating psychological safety where people feel empowered and valued when they contribute new ideas. Sometimes, the compensation and incentive system stands in the way.

There are also underlying cultural tensions that can inhibit collaboration. Things like individualism vs. collectivism or short-term wins vs. long-term success. Is that fair to say?

Heidi K. Gardner, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession and Program Chair of the Sector Leadership Master Class and Smarter Collaboration Master Class.

Heidi K. Gardner

Absolutely. Collaboration requires an investment. The benefits we’re talking about—revenues, profits, client loyalty, and so on—all take time to flow in.

It takes real stamina, faith, and courage to keep investing, but people often give up too early and return to their individualistic ways of working. They go back to the celebration of the “hero” at the expense of valuing the team.

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And when that happens, it just breeds cynicism. That’s a huge risk for organizations.

What can business leaders do to overcome these barriers to collaboration?

Organizations need to take a strong look at their leadership and ask whether they’ve got leaders who encourage psychological safety and encourage people to speak up when they have doubts or are running into barriers.

Beyond that, they need to look at their formal systems and ask what’s being rewarded. What metrics are they using to evaluate people, and how do they build collective trust? 

We’re not suggesting individuals shouldn’t be measured. Most organizations overweight individual performance. They claim that they want teamwork but reward individual outcomes. So they shouldn’t be surprised when people operate in ways that are selfish.

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What are some of the lessons leaders can draw from the companies you looked at for this book?

To think broadly. If you start with an ambitious agenda of doing something wildly different, there are people out there who will be equally passionate about that ambition.

We saw the example of Ørsted, the energy company that made a green transition and hit its goal decades ahead of the plan because it went all in. 

Without being reckless, leaders can be ambitious in setting these audacious goals and then thinking about how to make them happen. How do you harness people from different backgrounds and disciplines to achieve something beyond what any of us could do on our own?

How can organizations keep critical issues like climate change in mind when setting company goals in a challenging macroeconomic environment?

Make sure to have a cross-generation perspective. There’s evidence that Gen Z and millennials care more about purpose and meaning at an earlier stage in their careers than prior generations.

Getting input from people from various experience levels will help you understand more about what certain groups of people expect. This refreshing, novel way of looking at ‘what’s the point of work?’ can help more advanced leaders stick to the purpose agenda.

You write about how engaging employees is crucial for profitability, preventing loneliness, and advancing equity. Is this just another way of saying that what’s suitable for people is also good for business?

Yes. There’s no trade-off between achieving these ambitious goals and doing right by your people. Smarter collaboration is inherently wrapped up with inclusivity. It’s about helping people play to their strengths and allowing them to admit their limitations, so they’re not trying to overstretch. It’s about assisting organizations in creating a context where differences are tolerated and used as a source of differentiation. That’s good for humanity in many ways and is the essence of smart collaboration. So they really do go hand-in-hand.