John Caddell’s Reading Journal: Morten Hansen’s “Collaboration” (book review)

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by John Caddell on 2 November, 2009 – 21:49


I’ve finished a few books recently but am a bit behind on reviewing them. My kids have started documenting their books in reading journals that help them with reading comprehension. To add a bit of variety (and to make sure I’m not getting lazy), I’m going to use the reading journal format for this week’s reviews.

Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results,” by Morten Hansen. 2009: Harvard Business Press, 231pp.

When did you read it? September-October 2009.

Subject: A study of collaboration in business; when it is and when it is not appropriate, and best practices for successful collaboration.

Did you like it? How many stars would you give it (1-5)? 4 (thankfully I don’t have assigned reading… I won’t be writing about any 1-star books here!)

Summary: Hansen has spent his academic career studying how corporate groups collaborate, effectively and ineffectively. This book sums up a number of studies he has worked on with various companies over the past 15 years. First, Hansen discusses obstacles to collaboration – including the warning that not all collaboration is good collaboration. In other words, when the costs of collaboration (communication, coordination, negotiation, etc.) outweigh the benefits. This frequently happens when businesses lacking key synergies are combined via merger.

The bulk of the book is devoted to discussing what Hansen calls “disciplined collaboration.” He discusses four collaboration barriers – not invented here, hoarding, search (inability to find the insight you need), and transfer (inability to put others’ knowledge to use), and three “levers” to promote collaboration: “unify people, practice T-shaped management, and build nimble networks.”

These are practical suggestions and, on their own, not revolutionary. But to me seeing these three levers together as requirements for successful collaboration was distinctive and valuable.

Favorite quote: “Paradoxically, the emphasis on performance management over the past decade has created what Harvard Professor Leslie Perlow calls a ‘time famine’ at work. As people are pressured to perform, they feel that they don’t have the time to help others; reasonable requests for help are seen as burdens that put them behind in their own work. So people are faced with a trade-off – to do their own work (but not help others), or to help others (but get less work done).” p.55

Was it similar to anything you have read before? There are echoes of the recent book “Senior Leadership Teams” which takes up the question of how to get groups of senior executives, who naturally work to drive results from their own groups, to collaborate – another application of the “T-shaped management” approach.

Will this book end up on your bookshelf or in the library donation pile? The bookshelf. Collaboration is an important subject and I don’t have any books that deal with that as a main topic. Plus it’s good.

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