Increasing volatility, uncertainty, growing complexity, and ambiguous information (VUCA) has created a business environment in which agile collaboration is more critical than ever. Organizations need to be continually on the lookout for new market developments and competitive threats, identifying essential experts and nimbly forming and disbanding teams to help tackle those issues quickly. However, these cross-functional groups often bump up against misaligned incentives, hierarchical decision-making, and cultural rigidities, causing progress to stall or action to not be taken at all.
Consider the case of an organization in our consortium, the Connected Commons, that uncovered a ground-breaking audio/visual technology which would differentiate the organization in existing channels but also had the potential to open up entirely new markets. The CEO heralded it as a pivot point in growth and formed a cross-functional initiative of 100+ top employees to bring it to new commercial channels. Yet, unfortunately progress did not match expectations. Employees assigned to the effort struggled to make time for the work. They often did not understand the expertise or values of different functions, and advocated too aggressively for their own solutions. The group was surprised several times by the demands of external stakeholders. Despite this project’s visibility, critical mandate, and groundbreaking technology, the organization was ultimately hindered when it came to agile collaboration. This story is not unique.
A significant part of the problem is that work occurs through collaboration in networks of relationships that often do not mirror formal reporting structures or standard work processes. Intuitively, we know that the collaborative intensity of work has skyrocketed, and that collaborations are central to agility. Yet most organizations don’t manage internal collaboration productively, and assume that technology or formal org charts can yield agility. These efforts often fail because they lack informal networks—for example, employees who share an interest in a technological innovation like artificial intelligence or a passion for environmental sustainability, who can bridge the organization’s entrepreneurial and operational systems by bringing cutting-edge ideas to people who have the resources to begin experimenting and implementing them.
Our research focuses on agility not as a broad ideal, but rather on where it matters most — at the point of execution, where teams are working on new products, strategic initiatives, or with top clients. All of these points of execution are essential for organizations, yet all encounter inefficiencies unless they’re managed as a network. We assessed these strategically important groups in a wide range of global organizations via network surveys, which were completed by more than 30,000 employees. We also conducted hundreds of interviews with both workers and leaders in these companies. We found that agility at the point of execution is typically created through group-level networks such as account or new product development teams formed from employees drawn throughout the organization, lateral networks across core work processes, temporary teams and task forces formed to drive a critical organizational change or respond to a strategic threat, and communities of practice that enable organizations to enjoy true benefits of scale. These and other lateral networks provide agility when they are nurtured along four dimensions — 1) managing the center of the network, 2) engaging the fringe, 3) bridging select silos, and 4) leveraging boundary spanners. Leaders who nurture their internal networks in this way produce better outcomes—financial, strategic, and talent-related. Here’s how:
Managing the Network’s Center
When agility is viewed through a network lens, it becomes apparent that collaboration is never equally distributed. We typically see that 20-35% of valuable collaborations come from only 3-5% of employees. Through no fault of their own, these people become overly relied upon and tend to slow group responsiveness, despite working to their wits’ end. They are more likely to burn out and leave the company, creating network gaps, which then become another barrier to agility. Senior leaders need to consider where overload on the network’s center might preclude agile collaboration and:
- Encourage overwhelmed employees to re-distribute collaborative work in conjunction with their managers. Groundbreaking work from the Institute for Corporate Productivity(PDF) found that acknowledging and shifting collaborative demands in this way is a practice that’s three times more likely to be found in high performing organizations compared to those with lower performance.
- Understand how employees have ended up in the center – and if it is a result of formal position or personal characteristics, then take the corrective actions necessary to reduce overload. For example, simple shifts in a few behaviors can yield as much as 18-24% more time for collaboration. Such behaviors include: managing meetings more efficiently, creating an effective climate of email use, blocking time in calendars for reflective work, negotiating role demands, and avoiding triggers that lead us all to jump in on projects or meetings when we shouldn’t, to name just a few.
- Map the interdependencies between different teams where your central players contribute, in order to understand and plan for potential risks. When a star sits at the center of multiple projects, a surprise shock in one team can create nasty ripples well beyond the jolted team. Be sure team leaders have a backup plan to cover these emergencies.
Engaging the Network’s Fringe Players
Agility requires the integration of different capabilities and perspectives to understand VUCA issues and figure out what kinds of experts are needed to tackle them. But those who see the world differently or who are new to a group often languish at the network edges. Whereas those in the center may be over-relied upon, those on the fringes are often not tapped in a way that allows for agile collaboration. For example, our research shows that it can take three to five years for a newcomer to replicate the connectivity of a high performer. Few organizations provide such luxury of time, however: our research also shows that if an experienced hire doesn’t get integrated into substantive projects within the first year, they are seriously at risk of leaving before they reach the three-year mark.
Getting others to trust fringe employees is essential for drawing them into agile collaboration. Their competence isn’t usually in question, if you have rigorous hiring and merit-based promotion processes; the trick is getting others to trust their motives (“Will he take undue credit?” or “Will she walk away with my clients?”) if few colleagues can vouch for their character. Senior management can help by taking the following actions:
- Create a “hidden gems” program to help unearth high-potential but overlooked experts who could take some of the burden off of overworked central players. Role model this behavior by, for example, assigning an up-and-comer to co-lead a high status initiative.
- Help those on the fringe to create “pull” for their work. Instead of pushing expertise on others across the network, these employees need to be seen as a strategic resource to be pulled into opportunities. This is done by identifying mutual value and matching capabilities from the fringe to needs across the network.
- Pair newcomers and network influencers through staffing or mentoring. This simple practice triples newcomer connectivity compared to those who do not get this experience.
- Create inclusive and trusting environments to facilitate agile collaboration. A culture of fear exists when employees do not feel safe to come forward with ideas, and those on the fringe may be less confident about contributing. High performing organizations are 2.5 times more likely to facilitate an environment of safe communication (PDF).
Bridging Select Silos
Every organization we studied struggled with silos across functions, expertise, geography, level, and cultures — whether occupational or national. The network lens can help uncover specific points that if crossed could yield agility benefits, rather than inefficiently bridging all silos. Often, this means connecting people across units or geographies doing similar work to yield benefits of scale, or identifying points where integrating different perspectives yields agile innovation. This type of multidisciplinary collaboration produces higher revenues and profits because it tackles higher-value problems. Motivating experts to engage in agile collaboration requires them not only to identify and appreciate knowledge from other silos, but also to be willing to give up some control and autonomy over a project’s direction. Senior leaders can help motivate experts with the following actions:
- Set specific goals and reward agile collaboration. Our research found that, compared to lower performing organizations, high performance organizations are three to five times more likely to reward collaboration (PDF), motivating employees to move beyond silos. Our studies of firms that use peer feedback to effectively identify and celebrate agile collaborators show that these bottom-up processes often uncover excellent people whom the formal performance reviews might otherwise overlook.
- Use data and analytics to understand where silos exist, in order to unlock possible agile collaboration. In one study, we found discrepancies in connections between headquarters and affiliates, and poor collaboration between engineering and sales. This insight produced the business case for holding brainstorming sessions to build connections and improve communication. A data-driven approach is not only more accurate and less biased than relying on individuals’ perceptions, but also more convincingly demonstrates the quantifiable upside for agile collaboration.
- Identify experts scattered across silos and key cross-points in the firm for agile collaboration. Set up “communities of practice” or business development initiatives to help share expertise or resources. For example, many business service firms are prompting professionals who serve customers in similar industries such as insurance or biotech to meet informally and share sector insights and leads. The well-connected act as bridges to and from silos. Some firms have successfully tasked high-potential employees with tracking the evolving expertise in adjacent departments, which has to be a dynamic process—definitely not a knowledge database. These employees should be recognized for identifying opportunities to use cross-silo knowledge. Exchange programs or rotational programs can help here, too.
Spanning External Boundaries
Agility thrives when employees understand their organization within the broader ecosystem, and continually scan for market developments that pose either threats or opportunities. Doing so requires dynamic knowledge of external bodies such as competitors, customers, regulators, and expertise communities or associations. Those who span the boundary between internal and external actors can solve problems in unique ways, because they can access knowledge from these different worlds. They can also facilitate agile collaboration by efficiently integrating disparate viewpoints and creating multi-stakeholder solutions, but they need to be properly empowered, managed, and resourced in order to do so. Senior managers can facilitate this by doing the following:
- Identify and enlist boundary spanners to help tackle vexing problems. People who connect the organization with its ecosystem can propose plans that can be feasibly implemented, since they have access to the shortest informational paths in the network and legitimacy in the broader environmental context.
- Nurture relationships and promote the exchange of information by organizing forums or special events that convene key players from across the ecosystem. This approach helps to create more people in your organization who are capable of functioning as bridges to external parties, and it provides insights on pain points and opportunities in the ecosystem.
- Promote connectivity to key external stakeholders. High performing organizations are 2.5 times more likely to encourage interaction with external stakeholders (PDF) such as clients, suppliers, regulatory bodies, or professional associations. Senior managers should require employees who are well-connected internally to work on external connections, or suggest that those who are well-connected externally mentor junior employees in networking to ensure boundary spanning.
Managing these collaborative players as part of a network can help organizations be more agile. Although agile collaboration requires continual re-assessment of complex problems, it is possible for firms to combine and recombine essential expertise from across points in the network to address VUCA issues. By steadily nurturing agile collaboration, senior management can more effectively and more efficiently access the necessary depth of expertise of key collaborators within the organization.