Monday, November 08, 2010

Requisite Collaboration

My blogpost on The Startling Cost of Inefficient Collaboration started from the observation that "too much collaboration can be bad". But how much is too much?

Too Little Barely Enough Just Right More Than Enough Too Much

We often need to make a judgement about the appropriate quantity and quality of something. Such judgements can be difficult ones, because they need to be sensitive to who, why and where. Even something as basic as the right amount of food will vary between members of the same family and at different times. And there is no simple formula that will tell you whether to spend more time preparing for tomorrow's meeting or to get an early night.

So how much is a good amount of collaboration - just enough but not too much? Obviously this depends on many situational factors including purpose and context. We can talk about requisite collaboration - in other words, the quantity and quality of collaboration that is appropriate for a given situation. And although we should not expect a simple formula, this is nonetheless something we should expect to be able to reason about.

It's also important to remember that the quantity and quality of collaboration is not necessarily under the control of a single stakeholder. People who work in large organizations may be able to initiate some meetings and duck out of others, and may sometimes be able to unplug phones and ignore email (although many people experience guilt or anxiety when they do this), but the actual quantity of collaboration emerges from the interaction with everyone else. The bosses at Lehman Brothers had elaborate routines to prevent ordinary staff talking to them, and some commentators (e.g. @markfidelman What if Peter Drucker Taught Enterprise 2.0?) have suggested this could have contributed to the collapse of the firm, but I'm sure even Lehman bosses couldn't cut themselves off completely from urgent demands from important stakeholders.

So Lehman bosses may sometimes have had more communication with other people than they felt they wanted at the time, but with hindsight even they might admit that they didn't have enough of the right kind of communication. Such a judgement is always relative to a particular stakeholder position - other people such as junior staff or minor customers might complain that Lehman bosses didn't listen to them, but to put this complaint in terms of requisite collaboration would be to imply that Lehman bosses didn't do enough listening to serve their own interests and the interests of the firm as a whole.

In some domains, there is a body of knowledge that may help us to determine the right level of collaboration. For example, John Gattorna uses the concept of requisite collaboration within enterprise supply chains, suggesting that collaboration makes sense only with those who truly want to collaborate. (See John Gattorna, Supply Chain Collaboration, Supply Chain Digest June 2007. See also review of Dynamic Supply Chain Alignment by Jan Husdal.)

In any case, we need some whole-of-context view to determine the requisite level of collaboration, as my friend @tetradian points out. For Lehman Brothers, inadequate collaboration led to inadequate organizational intelligence, which led to organization failure. The organizational intelligence methodology should help us think about the appropriate collaboration levels of different scenarios by working backwards from the consequences.

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