From collaboration to choreography

Mike Canning

Companies comfortable working within an ecosystem of collaborative partners are positioning themselves to offer customers greater flexibility and value. Michael Canning CEO of Duke Corporate Education explains.

The deal between Apple and IBM to collaborate on the next generation of enterprise apps was the biggest story of 2014 for the tech world, according to mobile analyst Horace Dediu. By joining forces, Apple and IBM can energize IBM software and iPad sales but also the entire enterprise software market, as reported by AW Kosner on (December 2014).

We see similar examples in our work with companies which need to expand globally through joint ventures or partnerships in emerging markets. Collaborating with organizations with different cultures and operating models, over which you have little direct control, is set to become a key strategic capability. Add to this the move to open-source problem- solving and innovation, and it is clear that today’s world requires looser boundaries and closer collaboration.

In the past, many organizations moved to a matrix to better position themselves for opportunities and customer solutions; decades later, they are still trying to figure out why it “isn’t working”. CEOs discuss how their companies have “perfected the art of working in silos.” Leaders point out that collaboration across business units remains challenging because people are not properly incentivized and no single business unit will bear the burden of investing in collaboration.

As leaders, we know collaboration is essential. So, why is it still hard for us to achieve? Leadership expert Mario Moussa, co-author of The Art of Woo (2008), shared with me his take:

First, everyone has their own goals, which promote focus but also tunnel-vision and blind spots to situational opportunities. Second, everyone suffers from ego-centric bias, assuming others are like them, when perspectives and preferences vary. Each of us pursues our particular ends, resulting in “disconnect”.

Third, people inhabit “micro-cultures.”

A finance executive speaks a distinct language, exhibits distinct behaviours, and is motivated by distinct values, as do marketing executives, scientists, and engineers. We not only have to learn to adapt to other country’s cultures, but also to departmental ones. Finally, people are reluctant to speak their mind. It’s almost impossible to achieve a frank discussion, with egos left at the door, because people fear retribution or looking stupid.

Challenges are personal as well as structural. It is tough to rewire ourselves, especially when our old ways have led to personal success. And working collaboratively is difficult because we come from different cultures, generations, genders, and approach problems with our own default thinking. It is unconscious and insidious, as Sheila Heen, co-author of Thanks for the Feedback (2014), explains. We need to look with fresh eyes to notice how things really work, and find opportunities in our differences.

The importance of collaboration, and the scale at which it must be achieved, has increased as we’ve moved from matrix to eco-system. We are just beginning to work with firms to develop a meta-capability we call “choreography”. In practice, this “dance-writing” requires fresh ways of influencing which rely on a deep appreciation of context and the ability to bring together and energize collectives that reside outside the leader’s sphere of direct control.

This is more akin to choreographing a flash mob than a ballet; many diverse individuals tune in to one another through an emerging design and real-time collaboration. It becomes more complex as the number and diversity of the players go up, but the concept is that, through the principles and frame of choreography, leaders overcome some of their own stumbling blocks and harness and direct the energy of collectives to achieve better results at scale.

As the scale of the challenge shifts from matrix to eco-system, we must move from collaboration to choreography. To keep pace we, as leaders, must move faster, push ourselves harder to overcome obstacles, and develop new habits.