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Building Creative Collaboration

2011 January 30

Creativity is changing.  Not so long ago, it seemed like a “man on the mountain” approach could suffice.  All you needed was a great idea and then get people to rally around it to make it happen (or so many thought).

To whatever extent that was ever true, it certainly seems to be getting less so.  Due partly to a change in zeitgeist and partly to greater integration and complexity in business life, we’re working more in teams.  So the question is:  What makes some teams better than others?

Research into social networks has begun to shed some light on that question and is coming up with some sensible answers that have important practical implications.

So What’s It Take To Make It On Broadway?

Wouldn’t it be cool to have your own Broadway play?  You could have your name in lights and hobnob with the jet set.  You’d get invited to all the best parties and be the envy of all your friends.

Of course, most productions lose money and you don’t want that.  So the point is not just to have a play, but to have a successful one.  That’s easier said than done.  The public’s tastes are fickle and competition is stiff.  How can you determine beforehand whether your play is likely to be a hit or a flop?

There are lots of variables.  For instance, economic conditions, production budgets and track record of the director will all play a role.  However, in a highly cited study, researchers Brian Uzzi and Jarrett Spiro found that how social networks are structured has a lot to do with the outcome.

Social Network Basics

All social networks are different.  Some are tightly clustered and everybody seems to know each other.  Others have broad reach and you can connect to people far away through just a few contacts.  How a network is structured will greatly affect how information flows within it.

Network theorists have learned a lot about what drives social networks and have come up with three basic metrics that give you a pretty good idea how a network will behave.

Path Lengths: This is the average number of links you need to get from one person in the network to another.  For instance, in Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment, he found an average of six degrees of separation in the population of the United States.

Clustering Coefficient: Of course, we don’t often meet people randomly.  We tend to consort with those we work with, live near and know people that we know.  Not surprisingly, networks build links over time and thus become more clustered.

We can calculate how clustered a network is by simply dividing the number of links in a network by the total number of links possible (n(n-1)/2).

Small World Quotient “Q”: The interesting cases are so-called small world networks, where there is relatively high clustering and short path lengths.  We can combine the clustering coefficients and path lengths measure to come up with a metric called “Q.”

Networks with a Q of over 1.0 are considered to be small world networks with a nice, homey feel, but broad reach.

Get Yourself Some “Q”  (but not too much)

When Uzzi and Spiro looked into Broadway plays, they came across something interesting.  It was important for the people working on the play to have worked together before and therefore exhibit some clustering, but if they were too inbred both financial performance and reviews began to falter.

This effect is clearly visible in the graphs shown below.  As Q rises, the pr0bability of both financial and critical success increases…up to a point.

Once you think about it a bit, this makes sense.  When people work together for the first time, everything is a bit chaotic and it’s hard to collaborate effectively.  However, when people work together too much, group think sets in and innovation stops.  You need a little spice in the soup.

Interestingly, Uzzi and Spiro found that Q explained success better than any other factor.  More than production budgets, economic conditions, track record of success, etc.

Managing Past the Dunbar Number

Robin Dunbar made himself famous by estimating the number of people that are able to maintain stable relationships is about 150.  Other have estimated it higher, but not by much.

What’s clear is that companies change as they grow.  As they get bigger, information doesn’t flow as naturally.  Formal meetings begin to take precedence over impromptu discussions in the hallway and office pop-ins.   Rules take precedence over informal norms and the workplace starts taking on a more institutional feel.

In my experience, this starts happening in companies somewhat larger that 150.  After all, some employees are support staff and not everybody in the company needs to maintain stable relationships at any given time.  If I had to guess, I would say things really start changing somewhere between 200 and 400 people.

In any case, once a business starts growing far beyond the Dunbar number, you have to start changing the way you think about managing.  Connections between people don’t occur naturally anymore, inner “cliques” form that alienate newcomers and information flow tends to get stuck in pockets.

Keeping Teams Fresh

Getting people to collaborate is obviously a key success factor in any business.  Through the years, I’ve found three practices to be helpful in keeping “Q” in the range where people can work together effectively but don’t fall into a rut:

Training programs: Besides the obvious knowledge transfer function of training, one often overlooked benefit is that it gets people to meet those they normally wouldn’t.

Generalized graduate training programs can be especially helpful in this regard.  After the training is completed, new hires go to different parts of the company but maintain ties to their training class.

Best Practice Programs: Holding monthly meetings across departments for people to show off their best work not only encourages good work, but helps people to mix and develop relationships across the organization.

Forced Switching: Another, more difficult, practice is to force people to switch departments and functions.  This often encounters resistance because managers are inclined to want to “protect their team” and people like to stay where they are comfortable.

However, people adjust faster than you would think and the disruption is considerably less than a full scale reorganization.

I’m sure others out there have come across their own strategies for building collaborative teams.  I would love to hear about them in the comments.

– Greg

Note: Special thanks to John Steen and Tim Kastelle at The Innovation Leadership Network blog for inspiring this post.

Update:John Steen wrote a follow-up to this post that cites new research. Definitely worth a look. You can find it here: Very interesting read!

10 Responses leave one →
  1. January 31, 2011

    Hi Greg,

    Did you see The Producers? They WANTED the show to be a flop and despite their attempts to MAKE it flop – it was a success! LOL But of course, that was a show about a show 🙂

    I have seen first hand how as a small company starts to grow, there are definitely clear lines drawn as to the proper communications channels to follow while more rules and regulations are put into place as the staff numbers increase. Forced switching sounds like an interesting concept. I wonder how many companies have tried this. Do you have any idea? This would certainly give staff and management an inside perspective from other department’s shoes and I would imagine could be very beneficial moving forward working as teams toward a common goal.

  2. January 31, 2011


    For some companies, forced switching is the rule, rather than the exception. You simply can’t get ahead at a company like P&G or GE without working in more than one geographical and/or functional area. So, in those cases, it is not really “forced” anymore.

    However, when a company is just starting to grow, people start to become territorial and try to “stake out their claim” on the future. That’s when you have to force people to circulate. It’s not easy, but something that needs to be done. If it isn’t, companies tend to devolve into a collection of fiefs and factions.

    – Greg

  3. January 31, 2011

    In this increasingly connected, complex world more work and fun will get done via self-organized teams. A key trait to accomplish more in collaboration will be the capacity to collaboratively communicate – different than leading or following.

    Also helpful in collaboration are ensuring that all participants have a role to play in the top goal of it + a strong sweet spot of mutual interest among all players + agree, upfront on a few Rules of Engagement, leads for each major task and timetable…. all of which may well change yet starting with specifics is easier (to get and stay on the same page) that trying to reach agreement on them later on.

    See some collaboration-related sayings here

  4. January 31, 2011

    Great points. Thanks Kare!

    – Greg

  5. Jay Steven Levin permalink
    February 1, 2011

    Sorry in advance for being long winded here.
    I have a lot of experience in forced switching models and believe me it’s not easy to install, adopt or have accepted.
    I’ve found the model works best in non profit environments, but even there it’s difficult. In order to be successful the culture adopting such an approach has to be based on a solid value of cooperation. And the value has to be more than painted on, meaning that you have to screen very well to insure you have the right type of talent working with you. Something easier said than done.
    If you think creatively about where really this type of model has flourished it’s not in transactional commercial environments but rather in religious or spiritual ones; where that degree of cooperation and individual surrender to principle can be found. But in those cultures the commerce is personal and internal where the value is surrender and not acquisition, accumulation and profit.
    I’ve consulted for with Fortune 100 to 500 companies that had fast track leadership programs that employed forced switching models. Those though where seen as career path advancement choices; so much so, that short term personal disorientation was clearly worth the long term personal gain.
    For small businesses and start ups forced switching models are organic and everyone knows it from the entrepreneur founder to the team surrounding him or her. But again the short term rough ride is endured because of the promise or expectation of long term position or financial gain or both.
    To Kare’s point about collaboration I’ll add that within a company, unit, division or team there are only two style approaches possible to effectively manage change. And I think you’ll see they fall naturally into one camp or the other. The first top down mandated approach I refer to as the ADBC approach or “always decide before consulting.” This path is only endured and never really works outside of the military. Here team member employees are left out of the decision making process and are ordered into their new roles.
    The other more successful change strategy, I refer to as ACBD or “always consults before deciding.” Here with this approach style team members get that they are not just along for the ride but are included in the process itself. It makes a huge difference. And in such environments people are committed and invested way beyond a paycheck.
    In most cases I’ve found people will go along with change, given of course, the grade of change severity is not severe and as long as they feel consulted before the change occurs and are included “Upfront” as Kare mentions. It makes common sense.
    Lastly thinking about Greg’s response to Julie concerning people’s sense territoriality I think of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 17th century political philosopher who influenced the French revolution, who said, “all war is the result of man’s desire for territory.”
    Building a foundation of collaboration that has a staying power that endures and is transformational requires a lot of creativity.

  6. February 1, 2011

    Greg, this article provided a great rationale and useful advice about how to build and energize teams.

    Let’s combine your ideas about Training and Forced Switching. New team members join but they’ve already had the same training. So while there are new players in the group, there are familiar lines and steps to follow. The problem is new. The opportunity is exciting. They can quickly get to work.

    Training in Collaborative Communication would not build the skills of individuals, it would also provide all team members with a common process.

  7. February 1, 2011


    Thanks for taking the time to put together such a thoughtful answer.

    You’re right about how hard it is to force people to switch. What’s even more difficult is for their managers to let go of a top performer. However, this is definitely one of those ACBC type of situations. As a leader, sometimes you just need to make the decision. People will be angry with you but they get over it.

    – Greg

  8. February 1, 2011


    Interesting idea. However, for the most part, they are not the same employees. The ones you force to switch tend to be a bit more senior.

    – Greg

  9. Jay Steven Levin permalink
    February 1, 2011

    People don’t get over it nearly as much as you think Greg. And the results are disengagement, disinterest and the productivity and intellectual quality hit that comes along with it. Leaders that inspire next level brilliance can ACBD and in the process win people to their way of thinking even if the direction is different that what those following would have initially wanted. It’s all in the quality of the communication and expectation management exercised. Leaders that “just need to make the decision” and expect that their people will “get over” their anger only fool themselves when they speak about collaboration. People aren’t stupid they can smell a fake regardless of the cover up cologne. Like your posts and will continue to follow.

  10. February 1, 2011


    What you say is true. However, part of leading is having to make decisions that people won’t like. You can’t do it constantly, but sometimes you have to do it and take the heat.

    In my experience of forcing people to switch, they are usually happy about it later (not always, but usually). Sometimes you’re going to be wrong and you’ll be hearing about it for a long, long time.

    Nobody said it has to be easy (nor should it be).

    – Greg

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