Collaborative leadership part 2

Collaborative leadership Part 2

Most studies, commentaries, and models of leadership concern themselves with how leadership applies within the context of a unitary, authority-based organisation.

There exist, however, important circumstances requiring leadership, where the context is not unitary, and where authority is weak or non-existent. These include inter-organisational collaboration between two or more independent organisations; peer group collaboration within a single organisation; and integrating operations within an organisation that has ossified into ‘silos’.

In these circumstances, which are increasingly relevant with high-level promotion, special, different leadership skills are needed. These additional skills comprise “Collaborative Leadership”. They include:

  • aligning objectives, achieving commonality of purpose;
  • integrating cross-boundary processes;
  • establishing collaborative motivation;
  • consensus building skills.

The first article on Collaborative Leadership, published in our Bulletin last December, introduced the subject generally. This article, and the next, will look at the above components, and explain their critical roles in collaborative dynamics. This article looks at the first two criticalities - achieving Commonality of Purpose; and Integration of Cross-Boundary Processes.

Commonality of Purpose
Commonality of purpose, sometime referred to as alignment of objectives, is a sine qua non. Without a degree of alignment it is hard to imagine reliable co-operation taking place between rationally motivated organisations. The ideal is a “super-ordinate” goal – a goal highly desired by two or more organisations, which can be achieved by neither of them independently, but which may be achieved if they collaborate. In a famous experiment involving two mutually hostile gangs of teen-age boys, psychologists Sherif and Sherif induced a relationship of enthusiastic co-operation between them by focussing them on a project to repair a water-supply conduit. Neither gang could have achieved the objective by operating independently. The need for a water supply overrode rivalries, and collaborative behaviour resulted. The psychologists noted that the success of the endeavour brought about an amicable collaborative relationship, which outlasted the project itself. The two gangs had merged into a larger, collaboratively minded group.

In the air transport industry, my former stomping ground, airlines regularly complained to airport regulators about the reluctance of monopoly airport operators to expend capital. The airlines’ objective was, and still is, to improve the quality of their passengers’ experience within the airport terminal. This is because they know that many passengers feel the airport experience to be part of what they are paying for. Airlines therefore desire high levels of investment – capital expenditure – in airport facilities. The monopoly airport, however, may well be attracted by an asset sweating strategy. Asset-sweating involves bearing down on capital expenditure to avoid diluting the financial performance ratios that are seen as drivers of value in the business. Until the airlines find a way of correcting this misalignment of objectives, collaboration between the two organisations, which serves the travelling public best, is unlikely to be achieved. Examples of attempts at alignment have included the airline providing a substantial proportion of the “capex” itself, taking over the running of the entire terminal, and entreaties to a regulator to use regulatory power.

b. Integration of cross-boundary processes
All but the smallest organisations will normally be subdivided, and vertically integrated into functional departments. These subdivisions are concerned with specialisation of skills, but, critically to the wielders of power within the organisation, they are also about authority and control. However, most value-adding processes need to be horizontally integrated. It is these processes that deliver the value the customer pays for. They are the promises that the supplier makes to clients and customers. The delivery of these products, generate the revenue that sustains the whole organisation. However, the vertically arranged divisions can interfere with productive value-adding process. To be fully effective, it is necessary to ensure that value adding processes span boundaries seamlessly. Symptoms of dysfunction include high levels of competitive politics between leaders, tribal attitudes within teams, discontinuities in processes, and sub-optimised agendas displacing objectives that would benefit the whole organisation and its customers.

In the inter-organisational situation, when two or more independent organisations desire to collaborate, their processes must cross external organisational boundaries, and be focused on customer demand. A new aspect of leadership is called for to manage these – loyal to their own organisation, but with the subtlety to deal with the ambiguity of an equally important loyalty to the inter-organisational objective. These “boundary-spanners” need to be specially trained for this challenging role. Unfortunately, the nature of the challenge is often not understood or appreciated, leading to feelings of frustration and helplessness when inappropriate authority-based approaches fail. This, critically, can result in projects failing that might otherwise have been viable.

Process design must take place multi-laterally. As they will flow through divisional or organisational boundaries, owners of functional ‘territory’ need to be consulted, and agreement gained, about how the value adding process takes place from start to finish. As well as arriving at a consensus about the detail of the process, joint design ensures joint ownership, promotion and management of it.

Within the process, decision making on a day-to-day basis should be joint, or carried out unilaterally only in accordance with mutually agreed principles.

Process outcomes must be seen as pre-eminent over the departments owning them. This avoids sub-optimisation, and contributes to commonality of purpose.

In designing and implementing processes, care needs to be taken by leaders to ensure that standardisation of activity does not inhibit creativity. High levels of continual or opportunistic consultation at devolved levels are essential to involve staff and encourage innovation.

Leaders must therefore be able to think in terms of whole processes, and to manage across boundaries. Unless this is done effectively, removing silo effect is unlikely to happen. When achieved successfully, however, inter-organisational synergy becomes possible where previously it was not. Achieving super-ordinate goals becomes possible, where independent action would fail. Opportunities, denied to organisations skilled only in independent action, become achievable to those who understand how to collaborate successfully.

© Peter Saxton

Spring 2015.