Leading Change in Multi-organisation Collaborations

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Home > Articles > Leading Change in Multi-organisation Collaborations

 Leading Change in Multi-organisation Collaborations

Susan Goldsworthy and Walter McFarland | Today's Manager
December 1, 2018

Organisations aspiring to lead multi-organisation collaborations must build foundational capabilities into these collaborations from the start. These include: a collaborative mindset, extreme inclusiveness, selflessness, total transparency, ultra-communication, and higher purpose.

Earlier in 2018, Walter worked with Columbia University, Teacher’s College, to create something we are calling the Columbia University Talent Development Advisory Board (TDAB). The TDAB consists of a group of senior human resource (HR) and learning executives from top companies in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia as well as university faculty. The TDAB exists to identify and address the most important and complex challenges in human performance globally. Work is now underway and will continue for the next several months. All work products of the TDAB will be available to everyone in 2019. It is our hope that the TDAB will create new knowledge that benefits people and organisations everywhere.

We mention the TDAB because organisational change was one of the first challenges identified by members—but with a twist. The TDAB noted that an important characteristic of the global economy is the rise of multi-organisation collaborations of various types. These collaborations are formed to provide some kind of business advantage (for example, to increase their geographic reach, complement their lines of business, access new and different markets, and more) and may continue for a few months or, in some cases, a few years. When a multi-organisation collaboration lasts for years, it needs to change and grow to stay robust and relevant. How does a multi-organisation collaboration change when no single organisation is in charge? How does it change when no organisation has the formal authority to lead change?

This idea of leading a community of organisations beyond your own organisation (and leading change within it) is a significant challenge and one worthy of much attention in the years ahead. We believe that organisations that are able to lead collaborations of organisations will have significant business advantage in the future. We also believe that an organisation who can lead collaborations should build change competence into the new entity from the start rather than trying to add it later.

This article discusses how your organisation can lead multi-organisation collaborations and highlights key capabilities needed in managing these collaborations and in leading continuous change in them. Our ideas are meant to stimulate your thinking and experimentation in the days and weeks ahead.

A Word about Organisational Change
Since the 1940s, organisational change has been viewed as a capability outside an organisation that is added when needed. 1 Change is also viewed as something applied to a single organisation and overseen by a single management team with formal authority to lead the organisation and all change efforts. However, recent thinking positions organisational change very differently. 2 Change is now considered to be an integral part of doing business and change competencies are often included in an organisation’s leadership development plan. Simply said, organisations everywhere are becoming more comfortable with change and with its power as a source of competitive advantage. Even so, the track record for organisational change efforts in single organisations remains poor—and this is a problem for us here. We note that change in multi-organisation collaborations is likely to be more complex than in a single organisation. How can leaders make change in collaborative entities easier?

We believe a great first step is “building in” the capacity for change from the start by focussing on several capabilities that are foundational to effective change. Examples include: a collaborative mindset, extreme inclusiveness, selflessness, total transparency, ultra-communication, and higher purpose. The following section discusses each capability in more detail.

Leading a Collaboration of Organisations
The idea of different organisations collaborating together on a common project or goal is not new, but becoming much more common as organisations seek to increase their geographic reach, complement their lines of business, and access new and different markets.

For some organisations, participating in a multi-organisation collaboration is enough. However, for other organisations (perhaps your organisation) leading such collaborations is worth considering for several reasons:

  • Leading a multi-organisation collaboration can enhance your organisation’s brand,
  • Leading can increase your organisation’s access to new and different markets, and
  • Leading can enhance your organisation’s position in the market.

The ability to form and lead a group of organisations is an essential 21st century skill that can provide real competitive advantage especially for organisations aspiring to lead in their industry.

Organisations best at leading collaborations will do three things well. First, they will ensure that all collaborations are profitable for everyone involved. Said another way, they will demonstrate extreme business competence for reading the market, shaping opportunities, and assembling an effective team.

Second, they will foster environments of high trust among member organisations—even when members are competitors. Trust enables each member organisation to perform at its best—without fear. If your organisation can assemble a team of organisations and inspire high trust among the members, you are on your way to a greater leadership position in your market.

Third, they will create structures and processes within the collaboration focussed on performing change continuously and better over time. The ultimate goal of leading a multi-organisation collaboration is not a one-time profit, but the development of a new capability that further enhances your organisation and sets it apart.

Here are a set of capabilities that are foundational to leading multi-organisational collaboration and to fostering a culture of continuous change within it. At the heart of every capability is the need to build and maintain trust.

A Collaborative Mindset
Is your organisation ready to lead a collaborative effort? In our experience, a big reason why organisations miss opportunities to improve their businesses position is the fear of collaboration—even when such collaboration offers clear competitive advantage. Executive teams can hesitate to collaborate because they believe such collaboration gives competitors insight into their proprietary intellectual property (IP), products, or processes. Collaboration, they argue, can give away more competitive advantage than it gains. These executives are focussed more on managing risk than on leading boldly. They should not lead collaborations.

Organisations seeking to lead multi-organisation collaborations must first believe that the advantages of collaboration are greater than the risks. Executives in these organisations must be willing to help member organisations to share profit, and to trust—first. They see the value of sacrificing some short-term profit for long-term market leadership.

The first qualification to lead collaboration is a mindset willing to trust first. Is your organisation ready?

Extreme Inclusiveness
Collaborative leaders are able to build a compelling vision for the future that is extremely inclusive. Note that this vision has two pieces. First, it makes sense from a business perspective. It correctly views the market, the relevant opportunity, and how the collaboration can meet a unique market need.

Second, the vision is inclusive and sees member organisations as more than merely important. Members are seen as crucial to the success of the collaboration. The collaborative leader understands the importance of each organisation—and that understanding drives every action the leader takes. Inclusiveness creates an environment that facilitates engagement, performance, and sets the collaboration apart. Inclusiveness increases the informal power of the leader and reduces resistance to change.

A second qualification to lead collaboration is the abili-ty to view other organisations as crucial to the collabo-ration. Can your organisation do this? Even with its competitors?

Collaborative leaders position partner organisations fairly—even when that means positioning partners ahead of their own organisation. Collaborative leaders do this because they know it builds the long-term trust that unleashes the performance of the collaboration. Note that selflessness can go against your prior learning to always put your organisation first.

A third qualification to lead collaboration is the ability to put other organisations ahead of your own when appropriate. Would your organisation allow you to position another organisation ahead of it, even when such a decision makes sound business sense?

Total Transparency
Collaborative leaders are more than collaborative—they are transparent. Transparency means that the motivation of every action is clear to all. In this way the collaborative leader assures that member organisations see that the only agenda is the collaborative agenda. The collaborative leader is working for the team only. There is no hidden agenda.

A fourth qualification to lead collaboration is being open and honest in all things and assuring that there is no perception of a hidden agenda.

The definition of the word “ultra” is “going beyond what is usually expected”. This is exactly the meaning we are going for here. Collaborative leaders understand that if any member organisation fails to get a critical piece of information, trust is the first casualty. For this reason, communication is even more important in collaborations than in internal organisational operations. Collaborative leaders design multiple modes of communication to ensure all member organisations are always completely informed as quickly as possible. This is most important early in the collaboration when trust levels are lowest. Great communication builds trust. Poor communication destroys it.

A fifth qualification to lead collaboration is the ability to design and implement multiple communication modes ensuring fast and reliable communication to all member organisations.

Higher Purpose
Collaborative leaders seek to tie the work of a multi-organisation collaboration to a higher purpose that is meaningful to all member organisations. Examples include anything that improves the larger world or the lives of people. The higher purpose transcends the business reasons for conducting the collaboration. Given that multi-organisation collaborations are often large efforts, linking them to a higher purpose should be easy.

Note that the link between the collaboration and a higher purpose should be authentic or discarded. A collaboration of different organisations working on a common higher purpose builds trust and unites the team.

A sixth qualification to lead collaborations is the ability to authentically link the collaboration to a higher purpose.

As the global economy continues to increase competition everywhere, organisations are seeking new methods of competitive advantage. One source of this advantage (and one we are seeing more often) is partnering other organisations to increase an organisation’s geographic reach, complement services, increase capacity, and gain access to new geographies or markets. Some of these emerging partnerships are small in scope and short in duration. However, some partnerships are much larger with higher business potential. These partnerships (we call them collaborations) demand new behaviour from organisations, particularly organisations that desire to lead them.

We have noted that organisational change is a particular problem for long-term collaborations because no single organisation is in charge and none have the responsibility to lead the continuous change needed to keep the collaboration robust and effective. One solution (and we are suggesting it to organisations that aspire to lead multi-organisation collaborations) is to build certain, foundational capabilities into these collaborations from the start. These capabilities which include: a collaborative mindset, extreme inclusiveness, selflessness, total transparency, ultra-communication, and higher purpose combine to build the high levels of trust needed to assure continuous change.

1 Lewin K, 1947. Frontiers in group dynamics, part 2: channels of group life: social planning and action research. Human Relations, 1947. Vol. 1: p.143–153.

2 McFarland W, Goldsworthy S, 2013. Choosing Change. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Ms Goldsworthy and Mr McFarland are co-authors of the award-winning book—Choosing Change: How Leaders and Organizations Drive Results One Person at a Time.


Ms Susan Goldsworthy is an Affiliate Professor for Leadership & Organisational Change at IMD Business School role, a multiple award-winning author, an experienced senior executive coach, and former Olympic finalist with extensive global business experience at senior management levels. She is also an associate of Genesis Advisors, known for its work on transitions and The First 90 Days.

Mr Walter McFarland leads the People and Change business of North Highland. He is the past Board Chair of the Association for Talent Development and co-author of Choosing Change.


Copyright © 2018 Singapore Institute of Management

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