Kate Franklin, summer student intern, and Loren Walensky, pediatric oncologist and chemical biologist, work to develop the next generation of targeted therapies for cancer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute on August 4, 2014
Joint effort: teams of scientists are more productive than individuals © Getty

In the age of revolution, wrote Gary Hamel, the management expert, “it is not knowledge that produces new wealth but insight — insight into opportunities for discontinuous innovation.” 

We all know businesses must innovate to attract customers with services and products and to update brands. Yet it is too often the big-bang disrupters and inventors that get the attention — the likes of Uber, Airbnb and Facebook. They are dramatic, after all. Yet Heidi Gardner, a former McKinsey consultant and Harvard Business School professor, now at Harvard Law School, argues that subtle innovations and insights from teams of consultants are just as important.

Key to achieving these, writes Gardner, is “smart collaboration,” which is also the title of her book. There are two reasons for this, she argues: “Expertise specialisation and the increasing complexity of today’s problems.”

Gardner cites a study showing that 2m patents and 20m academic publications across half a century demonstrate that teams are more productive than individual scientists. Moreover, teams produce innovations that have a greater impact in their domain — even in fields such as engineering and social science, which have a reputation for individual geniuses making spectacular breakthroughs.

Gardner explores the theme of smart collaboration in the context of professional service firms. In her research she has looked at the role collaboration can play in innovation as well as raising a firm’s profitability. She claims it can also increase client satisfaction and engage workers, as well as breaking down silos in companies.

According to Gardner, encouraging collaboration can help engage all workers, but particularly millennials who are hungry for new projects and responsibilities, as well as giving them exposure to senior partners.

There is also a psychological benefit. Being part of a team increases attachment to the company, Gardner argues. Her own work, she says, has proved professionals’ motivation, sense of belonging and retention improve as their collaboration increases. “Collaboration can be inspirational, motivational and even joyful,” she writes. Partners, she says, also observe that it makes them feel supported in the work — as per the old saying: “a problem shared is a problem halved”. 

More to the point, it also means you can charge clients more money, she argues, because they value your strategic rather than purely technical advice.

The book is persuasive and thorough, yet it is fairly dry and at times the prose becomes clunky — not least in a section where she suggests that a firm can seek to bring new capabilities to bear. “Remember it’s not ‘Do you want fries with that?’” she writes. “It’s ‘Here’s another dimension of your problem that we can help solve by engaging a team of specialists to innovate on your behalf’.” The paragraph started so well.

Yet as a step-by-step guide, the book leads the reader through the challenges. She also suggests taking a look at other professions, such as science, which is replete with star specialists.

She looks at the resistance met when encouraging the “solo specialist” to collaborate. Typically this is a professional who is in the middle or upper ranks of a knowledge firm and has a reputation in a particular niche. “Let’s suppose that this description fits you. Let’s further suppose that you’re pretty much satisfied with the status quo and that you’re not inclined to disrupt your well-oiled machinery by introducing collaborators.” It is a fair assessment of the kind of reader who might buy this book. In order to get them — or you, if you are the target audience — on side, she says, a company must encourage trust. “Can I trust that the partner I bring into my client relationship won’t screw up that relationship?”

Professionals reluctant to work in teams might feel they do not know how to, or because they worry about integrating diverse expertise and styles. To overcome this you need to build trust by figuring out who plays a brokering role in the firm — not necessarily the formal leaders.

The difficulty is how to make teams gel and to continue to collaborate over time. I would have liked to know more about how to pick teams that work effectively together. However, if you are the target audience — say, a lawyer or a consultant — this is a good guide on collaboration and how to overcome the resistance of the solo player.

Smart Collaboration, by Heidi Gardner, Harvard Business Review Press, RRP£26/$32

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