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7 Key Enablers of Smart Collaboration

By Joel Barolsky

In January 2017, Harvard professor and ex-McKinsey consultant, Heidi Gardner, published Smart Collaboration. The book describes the results of her 10-year study into the benefits of collaboration in professional service firms. Gardner concludes that firms that effectively integrate cross-team solutions to solve clients’ problems will significantly outperform those that just rely on cross-selling solo-specialists.

The book is great in making the case for collaboration, but is a little thin when it comes to the “how to” bit. This post is my take on execution, and describes seven key enablers of smart collaboration…

#1 The right clients

The business case for collaboration is much stronger when your firm is servicing [i] large client organisations, [ii] with complex and diverse needs, and [iii] relatively sophisticated approaches to purchasing professional services. For instance, a small monoline insurer with a cab-rank panel structure would not be a prime prospect.

#2 Capability breadth

Gardner states that the true benefits of smart collaboration come from combining the skills and experience of a range of different practitioners to solve the client’s most pressing problems. This multi-disciplinary approach is hard to copy, is less price sensitive and much more fun to deliver.

It follows, therefore, that firms need to have service depth AND breadth for collaboration to payoff. Larger full-service firms would have relatively more opportunity than others.

#3 A culture of “our” client, not “my”client

In many firms, the prevailing culture is one where client relationships are primarily owned by individual partners, rather than seen as assets of the firm. In these instances, distrust of colleagues to serve “their” clients is more common than not. Trying to facilitate smart collaboration in a deeply individualistic culture is a long and hard road.

Many of the professional service firms I work with think they are collaborative, but in reality they’re collegiate. The latter describes a club of friends happy to socialise together. The former describes a one-firm firm where everyone is hardwired to win and deliver together.

#4 Great client leaders

Client Relationship Partners work across practice teams to bring the best of the firm to the client, and the whole of the client to the firm. These boundary-spanners are crucial in growing the network of relationships between the firm and the client. Success is more likely if the firm empowers this important leadership role, and invests in developing its client leader talent pool.

#5 Effective client knowledge sharing

Gardner states that a “collaborative technology platform” is essential in connecting partners with the right opportunities, as well as mitigating some of the obstacles to collaboration. While I broadly agree, many firms fail to get a positive return on their CRM investments, not because of technology issues, but because the cultural and strategic settings don’t facilitate communication and knowledge sharing.

Collaboration is enhanced by partners having a good understanding of [i] the firm’s full capability set, [ii] the client’s context and needs, and [iii] the details of the firm-client interaction.

#6 Consistency in energy and standards

The outcomes of a team are significantly enhanced when all team members have similar service standards. Problems arise if one team member thinks a “responsive” email reply is 24 hours, while another thinks its 24 minutes. It also helps if all team members have a similar drive to succeed and share common values around client focus.

There are two schools of thought around consistency of service style. Those who argue for a house-style cite benefits of a seamless client experience, resource fungibility and delivery efficiencies. The contrary view is that differences in style facilitate diversity and creativity. I’m more in the latter camp.

#7 The right measures and rewards

In the words of Peter Drucker, “what gets measured gets managed”. In the words of James Goldsmith, “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. If the firm incentivises solo-specialist behaviours and outcomes, the chances of meaningful collaboration are exceedingly low.

Call to action

Gardner’s research clearly illustrates the benefits of smart collaboration over cross-selling. If you sense the potential in your firm: [i] write down each of these seven enablers; [ii] give your firm a score out of 10 on each, and [iii] identify the key actions to shift the dial in the next six months, and closer to a 10 over the next 36 months.