Book Review: Collaboration by Morten Hansen

Book Review: Collaboration by Morten Hansen
Genre: Management

EBook | 256 pp. | Harvard Business Review Press | | 1st Edition
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4.0 rating

Collaboration is one of the first books that was suggested to me via the Book Suggestion Form from a reader of this blog. I must admit this book (which was published in 2009) had not made it on my radar. Morten T. Hansen has written a well documented, comprehensive book on a concept that despite seeming obvious, is often misunderstood. I’m also happy to have read the book now, as it is very relevant considering the recent developments in People Analytics, and especially Network Analysis. Moreover, the concept of T-Shaped Management is prominent in the book, something we have already covered in a bit, but that will probably deserve more space on this blog.

Good and Bad Collaboration

Probably one of the main contributions that this book gives to the concept of Collaboration is that there are Good and Bad collaborations. Which is exactly how the author starts the book.

Bad Collaboration is works that no collaboration.

Morten Hansen, Collaboration, page 1

Through several case studies, most notably that of Sony when it lost the war against the Apple iPod, Hansen establishes how influential a Culture of Collaboration is for companies. At the same time, it also finds out that collaborating for the sake of Collaboration does not necessarily add value, and sometimes it can come to the detriment of performance. It is straightforward, he argues, to get collaboration wrong, mainly because there are some traps that he identifies:

  • Collaborating in Hostile Territory: when an organisation does not have a culture that supports Collaboration, and its structure is entirely siloed, collaboration projects across the org will hit a wall very quickly.
  • Overcollaborating: sometimes also collaborating too much can be a problem, especially if this becomes yet another useless meeting.
  • Overshooting the potential value of Collaboration: often happens in M&A, when executives tend to over-estimate the importance of synergies across different business.
  • Underestimating the Costs of Collaboration: the cost of resolving conflicts and working across multiple organisational units is often underestimated. 
  • Misdiagnosing the Problem: too many executives have made misjudgements about the reasons why people don’t collaborate in their organisation. 
  • Implementing the Wrong Solution: the wrong diagnosis often leads to false solutions. How many software tools have been implemented claiming to solve the collaboration issue, just resulting in low adoption and sometimes even worse Collaboration?

The Solution: Disciplined Collaboration

Hansen identifies a solution in what he defines as Disciplined Collaborationwhich brings the best of two seemingly opposing worlds: decentralisation and Collaboration. 

The idea of disciplined collaboration can be summed up in one phrase: the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required.

Morten Hansen, Collaboration, page 15

He establishes a framework made of three steps, where managers should first Evaluate opportunities for Collaboration, assessing when this is needed. Then spot which barriers exist, to then be able to tear down these through tailored solutions. Most of the book concentrates on the steps required to tackle each of these steps.

Evaluating Opportunities for Collaboration

Chapter 2 focuses on the topic of evaluating when Collaboration might be positive to reach a better performance.

Collaboration is a means to an end, and that end is great performance.

Morten Hansen, Collaboration, page 18

Three steps are identified to ensure proper identification.

  • The first task is to understand the case for Collaboration—to appreciate how Collaboration can increase performance. 
  • The second task is to evaluate the upside for the company—to consider the potential for the organisation overall. 
  • The final task is to understand when to say no to a collaboration project—to articulate a decision rule for when to go ahead, and when not to, at the project level.

The chapter goes to great insight in looking t what the key levers that can be used to assess the case and understand the upside for the company are. Then some time is spent to identify the decision-making process for this step, which is a crucial element for what he will later define as Collaborative Leadership.

Spot the Barriers to Collaboration

Chapter three focuses on what Hansen defines as the Four Barriers to Collaboration. These primarily relate to the already mentioned delicate balance between Decentralisation and Collaboration. Traditional management practices have celebrated the decentralisation model, in which Managers care about reaching their goals and have little interest in helping others achieve theirs. Which is what brings up the essence of the identified barriers.

The Not-Invented-Here Barrier is easily viewed in any organisation, where even at the team level, there is resistance to apply ideas that were not grown internally. Sometimes this is pushed by manager behaviours. Some time is a simple team reaction. The Hoarding Barrier looks at a tendency to support behaviours that do not support sharing. How many managers do you know that prefer not to share information? A third is identified as The Search Barrier. Especially in a large organisation, it isn’t very easy to find out who has the right piece of information. The last one is the Transfer Barrier: how do you transfer a good practice from a unit to another, for example, when this crosses cultural boundaries

Tailor a Solution

Hansen suggests a set of three solutions, which however do not apply in all conditions, and thus need to be tailored. When the barrier concerns motivational issues, the two ideal management solutions are:

  • Unify people: Craft a unifying goal, state a core value of teamwork, and use the leadership pulpit to signal Collaboration. 
  • Cultivate T-shaped management: Use recruitment, promotion, firing, and rewards to cultivate Collaboration.

When instead the issue lies into the ability of people to collaborate well, another strategy might work:

  • Build nimble networks: Encourage formation of the right kinds of cross-unit personal relationships to help search and reduce transfers problems.

Chapter 4 to 6 cover these topics in more detail.

Collaborative Leadership

Although the concept is introduced in chapter seven, all of the management strategies suggested to remove the barriers to Collaboration are linked to the idea of Collaborative Leadership

Unifying People is all about setting a shared vision and indeed implementing a value of teamwork. Hansen is especially clear on this point:

It is the combination of teamwork and individual ownership that leads to disciplined collaboration: without the value of teamwork, it is hard to collaborate. Without the value of individual ownership, people shirk.

Morten Hansen, Collaboration, page 83

Interesting to note the focus that Hansen gives to the language used by management, and how this can foster or hinder a culture of Collaboration. A topic for which more time is needed.

The concept of T-Shaped Management is an exciting one, especially seen in this framework. Leaders cannot build a collaborative company with lone stars. There is a not so subtle attack to traditional talent management. This concept is not the same as the T-Shaped competency, even if there is an overlap between the two. Here is how the author arguments: 

Companies are better off cultivating another kind of star, those who excel at T-shaped management: people who simultaneously deliver results in their own job (the vertical part of the “T”) and deliver results by collaborating across the company (the horizontal part of the “T”). They stand out from lone stars because they can perform two things well, and not just one.

Morten Hansen, Collaboration, page 95

A great deal of content is spent on the creation of a consistent culture to ensure that T-Shaped Management can thrive. In this the parallel with Laszlo Bock’s work is evident. Both are looking at the consistency of processes (Recruiting, Performance Management, Compensation, Learning) to ensure the highest management effectiveness. 

The last strategy is about fostering a Network culture. Hansen builds a lot on the concepts that are at the basis of the Network Analysis and helps to create several rules for excellent networking skills. 

Against this background, he forms the concept of a Collaborative Leader, somebody that consistently knows how to take responsibility, redefining success from narrow, unit-specific agenda to bigger goals — involving others, in a genuinely inclusive decision-making style — not an alternative model, but rather a recalibration of critical capabilities for modern leaders.


With a strong scientific and research background, this book truly resonates. Even if more than ten years have passed since its publication, most o the concepts illustrated are valid and have demonstrated value even more. I’ve assigned four stars to this book, the reason being that there are two aspects in which the book has aged:

  1. Collaboration is looked mostly at the internal organisational level, whereas the challenge that most organisation face today is about Collaboration with different stakeholders. Some of the solutions proposed might not always work in these open contexts.
  2. Network Analysis is now a reality for many companies. Yet, some of the discoveries are slightly changing the original concepts on the value of internal networks (particularly on the usage o technologies).

In any case, a great book to read and to be added to the Management Library.

And you? Did you enjoy reading this book? Add a comment in the box below.

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Genre: Management | Rating: 4/5
By Morten Hansen
EBook | 256 pp. | Harvard Business Review Press | 01/04/2009 | 1st Edition
ISBN: 9781422115152
Buy on Amazon

Collaboration by Morten Hansen Goodreads Reviews

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