The Collaboration Blind Spot

A few years ago, the leaders of a multibillion-dollar energy systems company, which I’ll call EnerPac, decided to offer an after-sales service plan for one of its products. The new plan promised to generate a sizable new revenue stream and was strategically important for the company. The key to success would be figuring out how to integrate the service plan seamlessly with the sales process. And the best way to make that happen, the company’s leaders knew, would be to bring people from the sales and service departments together and ask them to collaborate.

Leaders understand the central role that cross-group collaboration plays in business today. It’s how companies of all shapes and sizes—from Starbucks and SpaceX to boutique banks and breweries—plan to innovate, stay relevant, and solve problems that seem unsolvable. It’s how they plan to meet changing customer expectations, maintain market share, and stay ahead (or just abreast) of competitors. In short, it’s how companies plan to succeed, compete, and just survive.

The leaders of EnerPac understood this well. So they forged ahead with their initiative. They convened a special meeting with Sales and Service in which they explained the financial and strategic importance of the new offering. They developed a clear action plan for the weeks and months ahead. They came up with incentives, made a senior leader available to both groups expressly for the venture, and funded it amply. Only after they’d put check marks in all those boxes did they officially launch the collaboration, with high hopes for the results.

But the initiative ran into problems almost immediately. Sales and Service just weren’t collaborating. Instead, they began making important decisions about the project on their own and excluded each other from meetings about topics of mutual concern. They dragged their feet in sharing data—or dumped so much data on each other, in so many different formats, that making sense of it became almost impossible. Needless to say, they started missing project milestones. Ultimately, the initiative sputtered to a halt.

EnerPac’s leaders were flummoxed. They’d bent over backward to get the project off to a good start, and everybody had seemed on board. What had happened?

Stalling Out

For the past eight years, I’ve done extensive research into what makes cross-group collaboration succeed and fail. For six of those years, as part of my doctoral research at Harvard Business School, I devoted attention to three global companies and, separately, conducted 120 interviews with managers and employees at 53 companies where groups had been asked to collaborate but were failing to do so. Time and again, I came across leaders who were scratching their heads—or pulling their hair out—as they tried to figure out why their initiatives weren’t progressing as planned. Each situation was different, of course. But the roots of the problems can be traced back to the same initial cause. I call it the collaboration blind spot.

Here’s the problem: In mandating and planning for collaborative initiatives, leaders tend to focus on logistics and processes, incentives and outcomes. That makes perfect sense. But in doing so they forget to consider how the groups they’re asking to work together might experience the request—especially when those groups are being told to break down walls, divulge information, sacrifice autonomy, share resources, or even cede responsibilities that define them as a group. All too often, groups feel threatened by such demands, which seem to represent openings for others to encroach on their territory. What if the collaboration is a sign that they’ve become less important to the company? What if they give up important resources and areas of responsibility and never get them back? What will happen to their reputation?

Nagged by concerns about their security, groups that have been asked to collaborate often retreat into themselves and reflexively assume a defensive posture. Their top priorities: Guard the territory, minimize the threat.

This kind of behavior can have consequences that extend beyond the collaboration at hand. A group focused on protecting its turf and minimizing threats can come across as uncooperative and a poor team player. Word gets around that it “can’t be trusted” or is “two-faced”—assessments that can harm future efforts to collaborate before they begin.

An Existential Threat

Let’s look more closely at the collaboration blind spot, this time in the context of a global insurance company I’ll call InsureYou. A few years ago, the company’s leaders launched a collaboration that stalled in a manner very similar to that of the collaboration at EnerPac—but ultimately, and instructively, they recognized what had gone wrong and managed to turn things around.

The idea for InsureYou’s initiative emerged because the company was facing increasing pressure from new and nimble competitors, and the industry was changing fast. Senior leaders knew that to survive, InsureYou would have to devote more attention to customers and respond more quickly to new cases. So they decided to engineer a collaboration between their risk management team (which knew how to calculate and structure risk for all insurance products) and their business line groups (which managed various product categories before and after risk structuring). Specifically, the business line groups would have to learn how to calculate and structure risk themselves in new insurance cases so that they could respond quickly to clients, and the risk management team would have to share its highly prized expertise with the business line groups and provide support.

The plan made sense in the big picture, but it made Risk Management uncomfortable. After all, managing risk was what the group did. That was its reason for being and what it was known for. If others were now being asked to do the same thing, did that mean the company no longer valued Risk Management as a distinct department? In being asked to collaborate, was the group actually being asked to train its replacement?

These were reasonable concerns. Especially in industries experiencing disruption, skilled workers have good reason to fear that their skills are becoming obsolete and that changes to the status quo mean that they and their departments have become less valuable to the company. So it’s natural for groups to feel that requests for collaboration threaten their security—even when that’s not the intent.

A Sense of Security

In my work, I’ve found that groups define and develop their sense of security along three main dimensions: identity, legitimacy, and control. Any leader who wants to encourage effective cross-group collaboration first needs to understand why groups care so much about these dimensions and how they feed into a sense of security.

Group identity, simply put, is what a group understands itself to be. It’s existential. To know what you stand for and to do your job as a group, you have to know what you are. Identity provides groups with a center of gravity and meaning in the company, which help build a sense of security. Group legitimacydevelops when a group’s existence is perceived by others as fitting and acceptable within the company, and the group is perceived to be of value. Control over what you do as a group is vital, too. It’s not enough just to know what you are as a group and to feel that the company accepts and affirms your existence. You also have to be able to act autonomously, determine the terms on which you work, and effect meaningful change.

Identity, legitimacy, and control represent distinct sources of group security, but they overlap in one very important respect: They almost always require that groups “own” territory—such as areas of responsibility, resources, or even reputation. Owning territory provides a way for groups to define and differentiate themselves; it is a proxy for the acceptability and value of a group; and it ensures that groups have the autonomy and decision rights they need to carry out their work.

None of this is hard to recognize—if you remember to look for it. But leaders often forget. That’s what happened at InsureYou. When presented with the demands of the collaboration, Risk Management felt threatened. So it dug in. Business line groups claimed that Risk Management was responding to requests for training either very slowly or not at all. Risk Management, for its part, complained that the business line groups were “making too many mistakes” and “making more work for us.” As a result, the company needed more rather than less time to process new cases.

The groups at InsureYou deserve some of the blame for the collaboration’s having stalled, of course. But ultimately the fault lies with the company’s leaders. Instead of pausing to consider how the proposed initiative might threaten the security of the groups involved, they rushed into planning and implementation, and the result was not collaboration but countercollaboration.

The lesson here is fundamental: Leaders who want to get a collaboration off the ground need to start by doing a threat assessment. How might the collaboration be unsettling to the groups involved? What’s the best way to dissipate that sense of threat?

Minimize the Resistance

If you’re hoping to launch a cross-group collaboration, first work to identify and minimize whatever resistance the initiative is likely to engender. You should do this along all three of the dimensions we’ve just discussed.

Reinforce identity.

You can diagnose threats to a group’s identity by taking two steps. First, gain clarity on how each of the involved groups perceives itself. What is each group proud of? What differentiates it from others? How would members describe themselves to their primary stakeholders in the company? To customers? With those perceptions in mind, consider how the critical elements of the collaboration might threaten the group’s identity. What are the main tasks? How will existing processes change, and how will resources be used differently? Will these new ways of working dilute or detract from the group’s identity?

Threat Warnings

During cross-group collaborations, look for frequent occurrences of territorial behaviors, which suggest that groups are feeling threatened by what you’ve asked them to do. These might include:

  • Overt territorial assertions, such as that one’s own group is in charge or that the other group’s opinion doesn’t matter
  • Overt attacks on others, such as publicly criticizing another group’s operations or processes
  • Power plays, such as calling a high-profile “summit” to discuss a topic but excluding the other group from the invitation
  • Covert blocking behaviors, such as dumping so much data on another group, in such a complicated form, that the other group can neither understand nor do anything with it
  • Covert manipulations of boundaries, such as framing or subtly shaping perceptions about the expertise of one’s group as being either very different from the other group’s (to strengthen boundaries) or very similar (to weaken boundaries, which makes “attacks” on the other group easier)

I’ve worked with leaders who have successfully addressed this threat by granting groups greater ownership over other areas that are closely associated with the group’s identity (even if those areas aren’t related to the initiative) and then making the group’s association with those areas explicit. Some of these leaders have also strengthened or affirmed groups’ sense of identity with symbolic activities and objects, such as group activities, training, and even physical decor. Little things matter. You can also minimize threats to identity by publicly acknowledging the critical roles that a group has always played in areas fundamental to its identity.

Reaffirm legitimacy.

A two-step process can be effective here, too. First, consider the big picture. Why was this group created, and what does the company feel are its most valuable contributions? With answers to those questions in mind, think again about the critical tasks—and credit—to be shared during the collaboration. Do any align with the group’s reason for being or its most valuable contributions?

If so, you’ve got a threat to legitimacy, and you will need to address it. One important way to do this is by publicly acknowledging the group’s importance and its differentiated value in the company. You’ll want to repeat this message, especially during the early months of the collaboration, and to back it up with support and continued recognition for the teams involved.

Could it be that the group was

actually being asked to train its replacement?

Identity and legitimacy threats became a problem when a collaboration was proposed at a global construction firm I’ll call ConstructionX. Confronting an industrywide decline in sales, the company’s leaders decided to try to expand their market by boosting demand for alternative uses of their products and services. To make this plan work, they crafted an unprecedented collaboration between their sales team (which could understand and influence demand) and their innovation engineering team (which could imagine new uses for existing products). The basic idea was this: Sales would identify clients who might be interested in alternative uses, and then a member of Innovation Engineering would accompany Sales on client visits to probe and pitch those uses. The team member from Innovation Engineering would later follow up directly with the clients, and if they showed further interest, somebody from Sales would be brought back in to the conversation to close the deal.

It was a nice idea in theory, but in practice it didn’t play out so well. Sales identified very few clients for Innovation Engineering to meet with, and in the rare cases when it did meet with clients, Innovation Engineering reported that Sales offered little opportunity to actually make a pitch. Not that Innovation Engineering wanted to do that anyway; team members felt they could best contribute to the company by generating ideas, not selling them. They so cherished that view of themselves that they used it to define not only their team identity but also the team’s value within the company. Sales, for its part, saw its role as being the sole bridge between the company and demanding clients. The new process called all that into question. Not surprisingly, both groups resisted the collaboration.

Fortunately, the leaders at ConstructionX recognized that they were dealing with threats to the identity and legitimacy of the two groups in the collaboration, and they moved quickly to address those threats. They convened a joint meeting in which they publicly acknowledged the critical role that Sales had always played in developing and guiding client relationships, and they made clear that they expected the group to continue in this role during the collaboration. At the same time, they acknowledged the critical role Innovation Engineering had always played in generating practical ideas for the company, and they made clear that the engineers’ role during sales visits was ultimately not to make sales but to do on-the-ground research for industry-leading innovation. Simply hearing all this enhanced each group’s sense of security.

The meeting marked a turning point for the collaboration. Sales began allocating more effort to examining its client rosters, and Innovation Engineering began to engage more fully when finally invited to client meetings. This was enough to get the ball rolling. For their part, leaders of ConstructionX knew that “lip service is cheap” and took care to continue supporting and nurturing the collaboration, repeating and reinforcing the ownership both groups had over the initiative and their identities and legitimacy.

Reassert control.

To gauge whether a collaborative initiative threatens a group’s sense of control, identify the major areas in which the group has autonomy and decision rights. For example, ask: What broad topics, processes, equipment, and decisions is this group responsible for? These are your “landmark” categories. Now consider the collaboration. Which topics, processes, equipment, and decisions will require shared, uncertain, or ambiguous control, and how do they map onto the landmark categories you’ve just identified?

If you find a partial or full overlap, you’re probably dealing with a control threat. One way to address this is to find other areas (even if separate from the target initiative) in which you can increase the group’s control and autonomy. At ConstructionX, the leaders recognized that Innovation Engineering was feeling a loss of control because of the unpredictable amount of time and resources that others were deciding its team members had to put into sales-like activities. To solve that problem, the leaders granted the group greater autonomy on a separate project that focused solely on innovation. It was still expected to take part in client visits and help craft alternative products, but now, with more control over this other innovation project, it felt less threatened by the collaboration and took part much more willingly. Sales and Innovation Engineering learned to trust the initiative and its consequences for their territories and sense of security.

Check Your Blind Spot

As we’ve discussed, in their rush to attend to matters of process, incentives, and outcomes, leaders often forget to consider how demands for collaboration can threaten groups’ sense of security and trigger defensive behaviors. That’s what happened at EnerPac when it tried to launch the after-sales offering between Sales and Service. Both groups felt that their territory was being encroached on, and the collaboration ground to a halt.

InsureYou initially made the same mistake, but the company’s initiative ultimately succeeded because a senior leader recognized that the risk management group felt threatened. The leader knew the collaboration would require Risk Management to give up some of its core territory to business line groups. There was no getting around that. So he made that clear—but he also addressed the threats to Risk Management’s sense of security. He emphasized in public and private settings that Risk Management would now be formally responsible for teaching and managing risk management activities across groups. In doing so, he redefined its territory in a way that reinforced its identity, legitimacy, and control. The group was still valued for risk management even if it wasn’t necessarily doing all the work itself.

It was a savvy move. Seemingly overnight, Risk Management staffers stopped resisting and embraced the collaboration. No longer feeling threatened, they began responding more quickly to requests, providing more-thorough guidance, and even suggesting additional ways that they could support the initiative. As a member of one of the business line groups put it, “They suddenly felt like colleagues, even advisers, rather than a brick wall.”

So don’t lose heart if your cross-group initiatives stall, because remedies are available. As I’ve learned in my work, collaborations can be successfully revived by first identifying threats to group security, and then by taking steps to minimize those threats and discourage defensive behaviors.

Checking your blind spot ahead of time is an even better option. The key is remembering to check it. And to that end, here’s an analogy that might be helpful. If you want to change lanes safely while driving on the highway, you can’t just look straight ahead, put your foot on the gas, and swerve. You first have to look in your rearview mirror and take in the threats around you. Only then should you make your move.

Lisa B. Kwan is a collaboration consultant, a senior researcher at Harvard University, and an executive leadership coach at Harvard Business School.