Rob Cross, a Babson College management professor, has estimated that 90% of leaders suffer collaboration overload, and that it’s possible to perform better and reclaim 18% to 24% of our work time by streamlining communications, meetings, and decision-making.

Now, a new book called Smarter Collaboration, by Heidi K. Gardner and Ivan A. Matviak, focuses primarily on the opposite scenario, making the case for more and better collaboration. Gardner, a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School, and Matviak, executive vice president at Clearwater Analytics, argue that’s even more important as people work remotely, since collaboration is inclusive and helps employees grow on the job.

“Smart collaboration involves highly specialized experts working together across traditional business silos to define and solve more complex problems—and pursue more lucrative opportunities—than any single group could do on its own,” the authors write. (p. 15) They argue that such an approach improves revenue, profits, innovation, customer loyalty, efficiency, transparency, and risk reduction. (What more could a business executive want?)

What makes collaboration smart? Gardner and Matviak propose the following guidelines:

  • It’s focused on complex issues, driven by a sense of purpose, and “aimed at achieving breakthrough insights, innovation, and transformational change.” (p. 6)
  • The collaboration involves the “right” number of people, but also includes some who aren’t the “usual suspects” and represents diversity of expertise and perspectives.
  • It truly engages everyone, involves real-time learning, is measured for collaboration and outcomes, and uses technology to facilitate communication and efficiency.

To spark collaboration, the authors say you need to:

  • Identify “the compelling imperative for change” so you can convince key people to buy in.
  • Find core enthusiasts and don’t devote too much energy to winning over skeptics in early stages.
  • Recruit influencers lower in the company hierarchy who have oversized impact on how initiatives are viewed.
  • Create shared language. At the financial-services company USAA, for example, a collaborative project focused on “member experiences.”
  • Pilot new collaborative approaches and monitor data on their results.
  • Gamify the effort. One law firm CEO created a contest to encourage practice groups to work together to generate business.
  • “Heroize teams.” Make sure the stories you celebrate aren’t only focused on individual success.

The authors recommend identifying the key skills and the behavioral profiles of teams that are meant to collaborate. This can be done through a workshop for the team that raises questions such as: What are the team members’ relationships to risk? Gardner and Matviak cite the example of a renewable energy company where the 35 senior executives were skewed toward risk seekers. “This revelation, in turn, helped source an uncomfortable truth: the team was regularly steamrolling its five members who were trying to inject doses of realism into their group discussions,” they write. (p. 91)

Teams have often fallen short when “leaders failed to create the kind of environment where collaboration thrives—for example, devoting time for team members to learn about one another’s technical and market knowledge, and especially about how that expertise related to the current client’s specific needs,” Gardner and Matviak write. Other times, “team members undermined one another’s ability to play to their own strengths. For example, they often mistakenly over relied on the inputs of higher-status team members rather than listening to people who knew the clients deeply or had other important ideas.” (p. 40) In an analysis of team meetings Gardner conducted, individual members often caused the group to miss opportunities by talking over or ignoring their peers with expertise in the matter being discussed.

Gardner and Matviak suggest making extra efforts to explain to teams how new members will contribute. “Proactive, comprehensive integration increases job satisfaction, expedites individual productivity, and more easily promotes an inclusive culture,” they write. (p. 103)

Performance management and compensation often stand in the way of better collaboration, as workers are rewarded most for individual contributions. As part of a move to encourage collaboration, for example, Gap Inc. shifted to base employee bonuses 75% on collective business outcomes and 25% on individual performance. Gardner and Matviak recommend assessing performance using scorecards that include ambitious cross-silo goals, team-based goals, individual goals, and “collaborative building blocks” such as contributions toward making the company more diverse and inclusive.

What about the problem of too much collaboration Cross is concerned about? Gardner and Matviak suggest communicating priorities and encouraging people to speak up when they’re overcommitted, as well as sharing success stories from collaborative projects so people can feel good about them even if they’re not a team member.

To be sure:

  • The book could provide a more straightforward playbook for managers to improve collaboration. It devotes more space than arguably is needed to the case for collaboration and specialized scenarios such as M&A and external partnerships, and its advice about how to make collaboration better is in parts abstract. Chapter 8 on leading a collaborative process and chapters 10-12 on troubleshooting collaboration challenges are among the most practically useful sections.
  • Many of the companies cited in the book as examples aren’t named. That’s presumably for confidentiality reasons, but it’s less compelling to the reader as a result.

Memorable facts and anecdotes:

  • Nearly half of new hires fail within 18 months, according to research the authors cite, and the total cost of a failed hire to an organization is more than double the individual’s annual compensation.
  • About 20% of the external hires Sodexo, the food services and facilities management company, makes each year are former employees.
  • Just 12% of employees surveyed at Fortune 1000 companies strongly agreed that their organization does a great job of onboarding new staff.
  • One study found that employees are less engaged with their work when their leaders haven’t gotten enough sleep.
  • At the beginning of a new project with an outside partner, AstraZeneca encourages its leaders to be visionary by asking them: “Let’s fast-forward three, five years, and someone’s writing a book about this. What do we want this collaboration known for?” (p. 181)
  • Some Accenture consultants use a metaphor of red and green cars to discuss with clients how to address conflict. The green car is positive language, which is always more powerful than negative language, represented by the red car. After this, when someone has a red-car moment, the clients or consultants might ask, “When’s the green car coming in?!” (p. 182)

Choice quotes:

  • “Some organizations focus on collaboration as a goal in and of itself. In those cases, collaboration becomes an explicit ‘organizational value.’ This sounds good, but in practice, it often means that people aren’t shown how specific collaborative behaviors will help realize the company’s strategic goals.” (p. 3)
  • “The sense of connectedness that grows out of smarter collaboration directly improves personal well-being, in part by lowering the risk of loneliness. Many of the thousands of people who participated in our survey research reported that the most important benefit they derive from working on team-based projects is the opportunity to meet new colleagues and to deepen existing relationships.” (p. 45)
  • “More important than co-location, people need to feel included in the group—recognized, engaged, and up to date.” (p. 106)
  • “Traditional management has mistakenly focused on fomenting competition to spur individual effort rather than fostering collaboration to achieve team success. Cooperative groups almost always out-perform aggressive individuals—not necessarily by defeating them in battle, but by adapting more effectively to rapid changes in environmental conditions.” —Darrell Rigby, a Bain partner (p. 120)
  • “Including team-based evaluation metrics will…ensure that employees from lower-class backgrounds, who are more likely to display these [team-based] skills, have an opportunity to earn high marks and rise through the ranks in organizations, ultimately leveling the playing field.” (p. 124)
  • “The truth is that collaboration is a process, not an event. It’s not just the kickoff, but the whole game. As such, it needs ongoing reinforcement—and lots of it. In fact, it’s hard to communicate too much about collaboration, and it’s easy to communicate too little.” (p. 160)
  • “Far too much of contemporary corporate culture can be summed up in the phrase, We need to win!….This mantra raises the question, Who are you trying to beat? Rather than fostering a culture of internal winners and losers, define the competition as the hurdle you are collectively working to overcome. Yes, maybe it’s a direct competitor, as in, ‘We’re Coke, let’s beat Pepsi.’…Far more compelling—and purpose enhancing—is, ‘We’re a biotech. Let’s beat Alzheimer’s disease.’ If you can cast the mission this way, then everyone is in it together, internally and maybe even externally.” (p. 172)

The bottom line is that Smarter Collaboration’s focus on the topic of collaboration is welcome, especially as organizations try to figure out how teams can best work together in remote and hybrid configurations.

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Read our 2021 briefing on Beyond Collaboration Overload by Rob Cross.
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