Collaboration and Watch Cogs

One of our Values at the CIPD is collaboration. As with any value it can mean different things to different people. Years ago, at a prior employer, I remember our CEO and COO describing one of our Values in two different ways that were inherently mutually exclusive (they did this within a five minute window).

To some people ‘collaboration’ might just mean having everyone involved – but to me the best outcome based test of collaboration is that you couldn’t have achieved what you did without the people that were involved. Otherwise it’s just people in a room. I saw a lovely point on Twitter last night that most organisations would require you to get a spend of £200 expenses signed off – but calling a meeting of 20 people for an hour is perfectly acceptable…

Career success has long been too focused on personal delivery and not been focused enough on bringing the best out of others. Of course these two aren’t binary – bringing the best out of other people should be a hallmark of personal achievement. Yet I still see leaders of people hired for technical expertise, rather than what they add to others.

The easiest way to be a good leader is to hire a good team and let them get on with things, yet when was the last time you asked a potential senior hire about how they do that? How do you identify that the person sitting in front of you with an exceptional track record didn’t just inherit an exceptional team from someone else? How will they build here?

Measuring the success of people who collaborate well is difficult. It seems modern business continues to value an employee who makes their own business unit work 5 per cent better than one who makes 20 other business units work 1 per cent better. Too much of the good work is hidden simply because visibility dissipates. It’s tricky to measure so we don’t.

Let’s take the example of meetings.

Most companies have an unofficial group of people that they would like in all meetings. They increase your percentage chance of making the correct decision or of creating a good option. You could probably name them in your organisation. If you get a few of them in the same room then you know you have a better chance of project success. Unfortunately this is the least visible work they do each day. Their intelligent nudge that then leads to other people’s performance is rarely credited to them in any meaningful way.

When it comes to that person’s performance review any dip in performance means they will be told they are ‘spreading themselves too thinly’ and that they aren’t focused enough on their core role. I can understand the point of the manager, but surely average performance in one part of the role is outweighed by increasing total organisational performance elsewhere?

It’s as if our focus on role outweighs our ability to acknowledge net business gain. I’ve done it myself with my team (mea culpa…) and it’s a hugely silo driven approach.

Instead of acknowledging the difference they’ve made to the business I focus on my own backyard. The least productive of choices. The choice that actually feels least like genuine leadership.

The trick is to understand that the watch won’t run without every cog. Even the smallest one is enabling the rest of mechanism to function. A good collaboration is the same. The job of a leader is to assemble the cogs and then understand that each one holds a key to smooth performance. And each should be valued as such. Size is irrelevant, it’s about the final result.

Recognition of what would have been impossible without a group is the first step to effective future collaboration.


And do I think of people as cogs in a machine? Only for the purposes of this piece. I think of people working well together as capable of creating a smoothness of action, precision and fluidity to rival the most expensive watch. Each playing a unique role in that.

I don’t think of us all as waiting to be assembled…but I do think of assembling groups of people as an art.

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