Collaboration comes of age: Harvard Business Review July-August 2011

Formed in January 2009 off the back of the international report The Enabling State: Collaborating for Success, the Collaborative Strategies Network ( has quietly agitated for a more a proactive use of collaboration across government, business and civil society, and the academic disciplines (its most recent sponsored activity has been the formation of the Civil Society Forum). Only our silos hold us back from evolving as a society, wherever we are in the world and whatever our history.

 It is great to see the Harvard Business Review making collaboration its spotlight feature, and linking it to building a culture of trust and innovation. As I said in my report, published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2009, it is not the technology that now holds us back but culture and behaviours. It is gratifying to read HBR cover in more detail collaborative leadership, a key concept in collaboration, because it markedly different from other forms of leadership which for thirty years management and business studies have espoused. Leadership will always have a command-and-control and prescriptive dimension, but collaborative leadership will mean something more and something else.

 The work of Ronald Heifetz has been most illuminating because it makes a virtue of uncertainty and disorientation, and distintinguishes between authority and leadership, and technical answers and adaptive work. As a former colleague, Philip Boxer, once told me, “Leadership takes three forms: I know the way; somebody else knows the way; none of us knows the way.”  

 Collaboration is the only way we can make complexity science work, because it holds the tension that change generates, where the pressure on leadership is not to act on what is known, but to act despite what is known or not known. Complexity science lies at the heart of post-modern collaboration because it accepts that the world does not stand still, whatever plans we make. The secret is to work with emergent and not just planned strategy, especially its unintended consequences. It is through collaborative resolution that differences -and surprises- are worked through, and we adapt to what emerges. Equality suddenly becomes fashionable again.

 My own model of leadership distinguishes between the existential, strategic, tactical and operational dimensions of leadership, where leadership is the science of the particular: discerning what space needs to be held for people to be enabled to take responsibility and embrace their destiny. Leadership is about the evolving self, because ultimately it is only through personal choice that the world is transformed. So leaders can prevent growth or encourage it. Managing and renegotiating the boundaries is an essential constituent of leadership, because without it trust, confidence and experiment cannot take root, and we cannot carry out what Heifetz calls the adaptive work.         

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