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Secrets of the world’s top collaborations

I had a conversation recently with someone who works for a company whose business model is built entirely around teamwork and collaboration. They’ve been doing it for decades and it has created huge success for them.

We were arranging to meet to chat about this topic that is so close to both our hearts when he said something that stopped me in my tracks - remember though this is our usp and we don’t readily share the ingredients!


I should say the tone was totally friendly but it made me think about how (and I have experienced this in my work), once people tap into the true power of collaborative working, they hold it close as the essential ingredient to fabulous working relationships and work inside and outside their business.

They have found their secret sauce and sometimes they’re not sure they want to tell anyone about it! :)

So...who and where are the great collaborators? Do we know how they are doing ‘it’? I’ve set myself on a mission to find out about those remarkable teams and write about it.

First up, Motorola (it’s not always about Apple) and the RAZR phone. The challenge - to create the thinnest phone ever released, but also to create a thing of beauty, more like jewelry than a utilitarian object and against an ambitious deadline.

Collaboration factors:

- Speaking up and experimentation

- Ideas, criticisms and talking about failures were all welcomed

- Productive conflict and debate meant that multiple iterations and prototypes were tried

- Daily team meetings for reflection

- A collective commitment to not taking the easy solutions

The result - the team trusted each other enough to ignore human factors experts who said a cell phone could only be so wide and still feel comfortable and placed the battery next to the circuit board in a totally new clamshell design to make it as thin as possible. The RAZR launch was the most successful to date, selling 50 million in two years and 110 million in four years.

(Credit - Amy Edmondson, teaming, How Organisations Learn, Innovate and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. One of my favourite books of all time).

Next up, Children’s Hospital and Clinics in Minneapolis (because tech isn’t everything :)). The challenge - to avoid harming hospitalized children. New COO Julie Morath’s goal was to achieve 100% patient safety at the hospital amidst an industry wide culture of not discussing errors.

Collaboration factors:

- Created a steering committee made up of diverse people that truly represented the organisation.

- When people pushed back on her initial message (98,000 people in the USA dying annually from medical errors), responded with openness and curiosity to find out what the day to day experiences of hospital staff were. This transformed the debate.

- Held 18 focus groups to allow people to air their concerns and ideas.

- Focused on systems errors, not individuals.

- Removed the blame from failure reporting and changed the language used.

The result - staff at Children’s Hospital started a system of Safety Action Teams, which was adopted organisation wide. A team based approach was adopted to discuss and identify systems failures after each medical error occurred. An anonymous reporting system provided more data for teams to work with for improvements.

Children’s Hospital became well known as a national leader in patient safety.

(Credit - Amy Edmonson, as above)

Last (for now) Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood – The Rolling Stones – have played together for more than 50 years.

Collaboration factors:

- The Stones’ success comes from each member having distinctive but complementary roles. Richards is their spiritual leader, Wood the mediator, Watts the band’s backbone, while Jagger is in control of everything he can be.

- They still recognise the importance of practising collaboration together. They typically commit two months to rehearsing before a tour, to reconnect with their collective rhythm.

- They understand that for excellence to become a habit, you need to define a shared approach to working together.

- The band performs as a seamless unit, each individual listening and responding to the others in what Wood calls “a conversation through music”.

- Each of the band’s members is a talent in his own right, but it is the chemistry the band has on each of them that works best. Being part of the Rolling Stones remains the best way for each member to achieve their individual goals

The result - possibly ‘the greatest rock n roll band on earth’.

(Credit - Leaderonomics)

This then is the secret to becoming an excellent team: There is no substitute for the ongoing commitment and deliberate practice required to build better teams. The evidence for how great a success factor collaboration is: how committed to, and sometimes protective, organisations are of their teamwork formula.


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