The following is a conversation between Dr. Heidi K. Gardner, Co-Founder of Gardener & Co., a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School, and Co-Author of Smarter Collaboration: A New Approach to Breaking Down Barriers and Transforming Work, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: Nonprofits face more daunting challenges today than ever before, and the pandemic has brought home the realization that they will never successfully address these problems alone, but only in collaboration with others.

That is why I’m so excited to have our next guest with us. She is Dr. Heidi K. Gardner, a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School, co-founder of the research and advisory firm, Gardner & Co., and co-author of Smarter Collaboration: A New Approach to Breaking Down Barriers and Transforming Work.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Heidi.

Dr. Heidi K. Gardner, co-founder of Gardener & Co., a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School, and co-author of Smarter Collaboration: A New Approach to Breaking Down Barriers and Transforming Work

Heidi: Thank you so much for having me.

Denver: Just seeing co-founder of Gardner & Co. ..and co-author of Smarter Collaboration, I can see you are someone who absolutely practices what they preach.

Heidi: I do indeed. And if I can take that a step further, the Co. in Gardner & Co. actually stands for collaborators. So our company name is Gardner & Collaborators because we want to make sure that we are getting the message out there, that as distinguished as we are in our line of work, as much research and work we’ve done on this topic, we cannot and have not gotten here alone.

“…in order to tackle these complex problems, we absolutely need to put our ego aside, admit our limitations, and figure out who has complementary expertise in order to tackle these more sophisticated, challenging issues and opportunities. So that’s the idea of smart collaboration.”

Denver: That’s great. Sometimes experts advise everybody else and never do it at home, so the idea that you have to do it there first is really wonderful to hear.

Well, your previous book was titled Smart Collaboration, and now we have Smarter Collaboration. What’s the distinction, Heidi?

Heidi: A couple of things. So first of all, the first book was primarily getting the rationale for smart collaboration out into the public domain.

And if I can sum that up really quickly, the idea is that, as you stated in your intro, problems today are incredibly complex, more daunting than ever. And because most of us are specialized in an area in the nonprofit world… probably in a function in the nonprofit world, et cetera, et cetera,…. it means that we are deep experts.

But in order to tackle these complex problems, we absolutely need to put our ego aside, admit our limitations, and figure out who has complementary expertise in order to tackle these more sophisticated, challenging issues and opportunities.

So that’s the idea of smart collaboration. And in the first book, we were building out the rationale for why that’s so important, probably now more than ever, and we were focused on bringing together people with different kinds of expertise.

Now, in the intervening six or so years, we’ve come to fully appreciate that the diversity of people we need when we’re tackling these complex problems extends well beyond:  What’s their knowledge base?  Or, what kind of expert are they?  to: What kinds of experiences have they had that allow them to bring a different perspective to this challenge or opportunity?

And so for example, it’s still very important to bring people across functions together, say inside an organization. And at the same time, we can’t just tick the box and say, Yes, we have Development, we have Events, we have this and this and this function.

But perhaps to say, Do we have only the most senior people representing each function? Or, do we have some cohort diversity here? What about people who are considerably older? How would they look at this opportunity we’re tackling? Or do we have somebody who’s much younger, and what can they bring to the party?

So age diversity is another area, and there’s dozens of different kinds of diversity. And we need leaders to start with the end in mind. What is this big, hairy thing that we’re tackling? And then step back and unpeel it and say, What kinds of differences will help us really get purchase on tackling this?

Maybe age really does matter. Actually, maybe in this case, it’s a different kind of diversity. It’s socioeconomic, it’s cultural, it’s functional, it’s disciplinary, it’s occupational. And we need to be thinking broadly in the beginning of any initiative: Who should we bring together, at least at first, with a strong hypothesis that they’re going to really enrich our conversation? And then we get into the hard work of making decisions about how to engage with each other in this smarter collaboration kind of way.

Denver: Yeah. That’s a great overview and great advice. And I do think you find in the nonprofit sector, they are beginning to reach out to the people that they serve, people with lived experience… and not doing it in terms of seeking their input and advice… but actually giving them some decision-making capability in terms of where the money needs to go, because they really understand the problem better than the experts very often.

Heidi: A hundred percent. Absolutely. And we’ve documented how that change is absolutely benefiting, not just the organizations, but, of course, the stakeholders as well. And so in our book, Smarter Collaboration, we’re taking this more expansive, inclusive view of who needs to be in the room.

And then what we do is, chapter by chapter, lay out the steps that leaders… and by the way, when I say leader, I don’t mean capital L leader. I don’t mean the person with the title.

Denver: Right.

Heidi: I mean the person who’s willing to step up and exhibit some leadership behaviors. And so we lay out, chapter by chapter, what those kinds of people need to do in order to engage with each other in the most productive and constructive way possible.

Because there’s a risk, Denver, that when people hear the word “collaboration,” they have one of two reactions, either: Oh, that’s a soft topic, the kind of thing we get around to when our real work is done. Or they make the mistake of thinking, Well, if collaboration is good, more must be better.

And then they throw people in teams at everything. And to counter that, we really want people to be thinking very intentionally about whose voice, whose brain do we need in the session right now? And who can we let go, at least for the moment, so that we’re not overextending any individual?

And how do we make sure that we are building in collaboration as the way we achieve our most important goals, not the thing that we get around to when those goals are accomplished.

Denver: Yeah. Well, we probably don’t think enough… as you’re sort of indicating…about what we’re trying to achieve and what we’re trying to accomplish. And I think if there’s a knee-jerk reaction to that now, it’s that we have a problem. Let’s get everybody on Zoom with no idea what we’re doing. And we feel that, well, we’re all talking together, that’s collaboration of course, which it isn’t. But we think that’s going to solve something, and what it solves is wasting our day.

Heidi: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more, and that’s why I insist on talking about smarter collaboration, that intentionality. It’s starting with the end in mind and being very deliberate about deciding: Whose brain do we need, and at which point in this process?

So I suggested earlier, it’s probably better to be more inclusive right upfront. So maybe the right answer is to bring more people together for the first meeting when we’re trying to scope out what exactly can we tackle or what’s the angle here.

And then somebody ostensibly is in charge of this process, and they need to exhibit the decision making that says, okay, let’s winnow this list really quickly so that by meeting number two, we have a much smaller, much more strategic group of people.

And it doesn’t mean being exclusive. It means being respectful. Telling somebody: “Thank you for showing up at that first meeting… really needed your input to understand exactly what we’re doing. And now that we’ve crystallized our goal as this particular angle, we’re going to move in that direction, and we’ll be sure to bring you back in if we see the opportunity.

“…that willingness to mix it up, to challenge each other, to debate, and sometimes to have that task conflict, that’s really productive as long as we know how to handle it well, and we trust each other.”

Denver: Keep you posted. Yeah, that’s great. You talk about the four common mistakes, and one of them, which I’d like to land on, is the fear of conflict trap. Speak a little bit about that, Heidi.

Heidi: Absolutely. Another mistake is that people say, Oh, collaboration, it’s kind of the same thing as collegiality. Like, oh, we really like each other; surely we’re collaborative. And what I’d like to point out is if you are doing the hard work of finding somebody who has a very different point of view than you do, it’s not going to be smooth sailing.

And if your objective is to maintain harmonious relations at all times, you’re going to have a problem engaging in smarter collaboration because if you and I are working together, and we’ve chosen to do that because you are coming from your deep base of expertise in the nonprofit arena, and I’m coming from Harvard Business School professor, law school faculty member, we’re going to see things perhaps in a different way, and that’s great.

But we have to be prepared to challenge each other to say, Hang on! Wait! What does that word even mean to you? Because I use it in a different way. We’ve got to pressure test these ideas against each other. Like, what? Hang on! Does this still hold up, even if we’re doing something radically different than either of us would’ve done on our own?

And that willingness to mix it up, to challenge each other, to debate, and sometimes to have that task conflict, that’s really productive as long as we know how to handle it well, and we trust each other.

Denver: Yeah. Well, it sounds like we want the intellectual friction without the social friction.

Heidi: A hundred percent.

Denver: And one of the problems I think we have in this sector, the nonprofit sector, is that we’re nice. We have a mission, which is a benign mission, and probably have a little bit more difficult time in embracing that conflict because if you don’t have that intellectual friction, nothing will ever change.

That’s how you challenge the status quo. That’s how you challenge norms, but it’s not the kind of people or the kind of sector where people feel all that comfortable in mixing it up, and that’s to our detriment.

Heidi: Absolutely. So there’s a lot of research. My background, my PhDs is in Organizational Behavior, and there’s a huge stream of research on conflict. And it’s really important to distinguish between task conflict, which is the intellectual side that you’re talking about, versus the interpersonal or the relationship conflict.

And what we know is that task conflict can be incredibly productive. It’s often great for creativity and innovation, like you were talking about challenging the status quo. It’s often really good for risk mitigation because by challenging each other, we’re going to uncover where some of the weaknesses are in what we’re thinking about.

And really, wouldn’t we rather do that ourselves than have somebody else outside point it out?  So the task conflict can be really productive. Relationship conflict never is. And what we see again and again in research of all kinds is that the single biggest, most important factor that keeps the task conflict contained to the intellectual content side is our trust in one another.

I am so much more willing to engage with you in this tough, challenging way if I believe that your questioning of me is meant to achieve a better, stronger outcome, and that you’re not challenging me in order to make me look foolish or make me feel inadequate.

 We are on the same page. We have a shared goal of getting the best possible outcome together. And this kind of task conflict, this intellectual debate and challenge is essential for that. I have to trust your intentions and vice versa.

Denver: That’s right. And I think the other kind of trust you talk about is competency trust. Correct?

Heidi: A hundred percent. And so competency trust is my belief in your ability. My belief is  that you deliver high quality on time, on budget. I’m also more willing to take challenge from you if I think you have a legitimate basis for challenging me. If I think you’re great at what you do, I’m more likely to accept your challenge than if I think, who is this yahoo coming at?

Denver: Watch his agenda. You know what I mean?

Heidi: Yeah, absolutely. Why does he think that he’s legitimate in challenging me? Now, some of this, I think we need to be careful. I might get defensive and not recognize your competency because it doesn’t serve my interest.

And so we have to have the honesty with ourselves that if we feel this distrust rising up, we have to take that deep breath and say, “Is our collaboration partner really acting in an untrustworthy way, or is it just hard for me?”

And if it’s just the latter, that’s a me thing. I need to get better at engaging in this kind of collaboration, which can be tricky sometimes, but I don’t want to paint the picture that this is always a slog. Collaboration is great fun. It’s incredibly energizing.

And it’s energizing because we’re doing something better than any of us could do on our own. And presumably, people in the nonprofit world are engaged in this line of work because they care about those outcomes.

 And to the extent they care about the outcomes, collaboration is fun because it allows them, both personally and from a mission and purpose perspective, to be getting better outcomes.

Denver: Yeah. And probably you could add on to that– loneliness. I had somebody on the show last week who said that 72% of global workers are lonely on a monthly basis and 55% on a weekly basis. Is there any data that indicates that collaboration can at least address that sense that:  I’m really lonely?

Heidi: Yeah. A hundred percent. And so when we look at some of the statistics, they’re pretty horrifying, absolutely. And it’s why, once again, to beat this drum, we need to be clear that we’re engaging in smarter collaboration. We’re not just thrown into a meeting.

Because I’ve had that same experience where I’ve been in a big meeting. It wasn’t clear to me what role I was supposed to play. Shame on me.  I’ll come back to this in a minute. But it wasn’t clear what role I was supposed to play, so I didn’t deeply engage with anyone.

And at the end, I turned the screen off, and there’s this cognitive dissonance that, Hang on!  I was just surrounded by 30 other people, and I feel really alone because I didn’t engage with them. And that’s where the loneliness comes from. It’s my felt experience of whether I connected with people as much as, and in the way that I wanted to.

And if we are not engaging in smarter collaboration, we’re just chucked into these meetings or pulling groups together, and people don’t have the opportunity to really contribute. And if when they contribute, their ideas aren’t valued and used, I think it’s worse than not showing up at all.

Denver: Yeah, it’s kind of, I think, what they refer to as social snacking. And when you’re going to these things, you think I’m around a whole bunch of rectangles all day long, but it’s really like eating potato chips. And every once in a while, you need a good nutritious meal of deeper collaboration with somebody where there’s a real mutual respect, and you feel valued and they feel valued.

Heidi: So if I can push this metaphor in, perhaps too far…

Denver: Oh, good.

Heidi: …what we also need beyond the big, nutritious meal, is some times of fasting, so that we’re actually getting hungry and eating at the right times and for the right reasons.

Denver: Right.

Heidi: And so smarter collaboration is in contrast to the times when we say this isn’t a good opportunity for collaboration. This is exactly when I need to put my head down and think deep thoughts all by myself.

And that’s going to be the most productive way forward or the fastest way forward, or some other outcome that I genuinely can do better on my own. And being thoughtful and making deliberate choices, and not just falling into patterns is when we’re being smart.

Denver: Yeah. Do you think there’s collaboration overload? I mean, I know that Rob Cross up at Babson College has talked about that and said  90% of the leaders are doing too much collaboration. What’s your take on that?

Heidi: I think, yes, absolutely. Collaboration overload is a huge problem. We have an entire chapter devoted to it. It was really fun when we were writing this book, not just writing the how-tos, but the how-not-tos. And we made sure to give as much guidance for how to avoid the traps and the pitfalls as how to do it right.

And over-collaboration stems from a number of things. Several root causes we’ve identified. One is simply ineffective teaming. It is not being smart and deliberate and choiceful about when and with whom we engage. So it comes from lack of strategic thinking on the one hand.

On the other hand, or another reason is that there are people who are rare inside any given organization– maybe because of their skillset, maybe because of their demographics. And so we give some examples in this book.

We visualize some of the data where we show that even in teams where people make up 50% of the… by number, of the individuals on a team, they might only have the ability to contribute 20% of the inputs and the value. And the reason is that they’re stretched too thin.

Somebody’s looked at that team and said, Wait a minute! We don’t have anyone of type X, so let’s pull that person in. And unless there are enough of those type X people to go around, if everybody wants a piece of them, then all they’re going to get is pieces.

And so that can be problematic in this sense…that they get stretched too thin.

And so we have some clear recommendations for leaders on how to use data to understand where this is happening, and even to predict which kinds of people are most likely to get peanut-buttered… spread too thin across too many places.

And we have recommendations for team leaders when they’ve got folks on their project team who are competing for different priorities and getting pulled in many directions.

And we also recognize that individuals themselves can feel overstretched and: What is it that they can do differently so that they can contribute to their fullest in the areas where they’re going to be able to make the most contribution, really optimize what they bring to the party?

Denver: Yeah. Learn how to say “no” now and again, even though you just have to. Otherwise, you do everything badly, and you’re running around and nobody wants to do that.

Heidi: Yeah.

Denver: We’ve talked about some of the challenges. How do you spark collaboration inside an organization?

Heidi: Well, so first of all, it is being really clear about what your strategy is. Now that might sound obvious, you know, coming from a McKinsey consultant, and that was five years of my life. But strategy matters because it allows people to understand what the priorities are and how their work fits into making those priorities come alive.

And so people need to be really clear, not just: what is the organization trying to do, but what do I do that contributes directly to that strategy, which allows us to say no to certain things because then we can say, “Wait a minute… Why are you asking me to do that? I’m not sure it’s a core part of what it is that we’re trying to achieve collectively.” So strategy really matters… and making sure people understand how the work that they do contributes to the strategy. 

I’d say putting in some practices that make sure we are engaging in truly smarter collaboration.Some of them are frankly Management 101 or Leadership 101. I always tell people, and I get very side-long glances for this one, never show up at a meeting where you don’t have an agenda in advance.

And I get a lot of eye rolls like: Oh, that means I’m going to have to spend all this time crafting an agenda ahead of time. Yes. If you don’t have time to make an agenda and put some thought into what we’re trying to achieve when we get together, I don’t have time to show up. Period.

Denver: Yeah, that’s good. I think a lot of people realize you need to come to the meeting with an agenda, but they don’t. So if you’re not doing it, you’ve got to remind them…you know it. Do you do it? And the answer is: not that frequently.

Heidi: Absolutely. There’s some other things to think about here. When we talk about smarter collaboration, we are talking about getting the right people together and then harnessing what they bring, such that they are genuinely contributing, genuinely making a difference. And it sounds funny, but an agenda is a tool for that kind of inclusivity.

I mean, let’s think for a minute. Who benefits from knowing ahead of time what we’re about to talk about? I mean, A- everyone because it allows me to use my time effectively and potentially prepare. But if I’m an introvert, we know that introverts perform better and are far more comfortable if they’ve had the opportunity to think through their thoughts before they express them out loud.

So introverts benefit from meeting agendas. So do people who are junior or lower status, which could be two different things… So, people who are younger or have less influential roles in an organization.

If they know ahead of time that they’re coming to a meeting and expected to contribute, they want to do their homework.  They want to test out their ideas with a peer that they really trust. So give them the opportunity to show up and perform at their highest level.

Same thing with non-native speakers, right? We could go on and on, but when we are asking people to spend their precious time and energy showing up to collaborate, make sure we have equipped them to come and give it their all.

Denver: Yeah. No, it’s kindness in some ways. You know what I mean? It’s the right thing to do.

Heidi: Yeah. But here’s where I’ll push back. It’s also good business.

Denver: It is, yeah. Absolutely. Right.

Heidi: And I hesitate to… in as much as, yes, it’s respectful, it shows… it allows other people to have their dignity. It’s the right thing to do. But sometimes, unfortunately, those get put into the “nice to have,”  like being nice is a “nice to have” as opposed to an absolute necessity.

And so when we’re talking about smarter collaboration, we are trying to drill in the idea that this is critical, essential, non-negotiable. And oh, by the way, it’s also nice.

Denver: Yeah. Well, I mean, it puts people in a position to succeed and…

Heidi: Yes.

Denver: …that’s what you’re looking to do. If you put people in a position to succeed, that’s going to redound to your benefit.

We talked about the kind of environment where collaboration thrives, and you give a great example in the book from the global biotech company, Roche. Tell us a little bit about that.

Heidi: Absolutely. I mean, gosh, this is an example that could be read one of two ways. So in short, Roche put in a whole series of smarter collaboration moves. They got the right people at the right time working together. They eliminated artificial silos and these inefficient approval processes, and they broke down some of the bureaucracy.

And by getting the right people involved from the very beginning, they were able to reduce the time to FDA approval by half.

Denver: Whoo!

Heidi: So when I said you could read it in one of two ways, either there’s some eye rolls out there like, Oh, great, another big pharma company making more money. Yeah. Okay. It’s important that they recoup the investment that they made on those molecules.

The other way I’d like to read it though is: maybe that means some kid got a life-saving drug years before they would have otherwise. Like that matters. And the example I think resonates with so many people.

I just got back up from a book tour in Australia. The book, Smarter Collaboration, was launched here in the states in November, but it wasn’t launched in Australia until March 1. So I was able to be on the ground when the book launched in Australia. And we used this Roche example of faster, more effective innovation.

And it resonated with so many people. We were working with people in the civil service and in nonprofits and all kinds of organizations there. And the inspiring conversations again and again are: What could you achieve that’s truly meaningful if you put your efforts into making the most of every human asset that you’ve got?

Think how much more effective you could be, and think about the knock-on effect for all of those individuals who feel valued, who are engaged in their work because they understand that they’re making a meaningful difference, and because they’re playing to their strengths.

“I think we, as leaders, could learn so much from helping people understand the contributions that they’re making and how valuable those are.”

Denver: Yeah. That’s how when people know what they do… and they can see the impact of what they do has on the mission and purpose of the organization, it changes the way they show up to work every day. And so many people just show up to do their job, but they don’t have that connecting thread that allows them to know: Ah, and that’s why this happened.

Heidi: So can I give you a different story about that, one that really is heartwarming for me? I had the opportunity to work some years ago with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

And the pro bono work and research that I was doing there was to help the Dana-Farber, one of the premier research and cancer treatment facilities in the world, help them to bring together their unbelievably powerful brains across different disciplines.

Not just oncology, but the geneticists and a whole range of other kinds of deep, deep experts to tackle this beast we call cancer. And so I was privileged to be able to work with the chief scientific officer and a whole range of folks there to inspire collaboration across these different labs and domains, et cetera.

But in conducting the research… I live in the Boston area and was able to go in person to do my research… And I show up, and they have a parking garage there, and the valet came… kind of jogging over and took my keys, and I thought, “Wow, first time I showed up, that was quite a parking experience.”

And they had my car waiting when I came down, and I thought: That’s really incredible. And it happened again and again and again. And finally, you know, I’m quite nosy. As a researcher in organizational behavior, I think it gives me the license to go poking everyone else…

Denver: To be curious…

Heidi: Yeah. Okay, curious. That’s a great way. Yes, I’m curious. But I was actually, and so I asked the parking attendant, I said, “What’s going on here? Like this is the best parking experience anywhere. Like are there cameras? People watching you?”

 I had tried to tip them. They wouldn’t take money. I’m like, Okay, so why? “Why do you work so hard at this?” And what this guy said, God bless him, he said, “Everyone who comes to the Dana-Farber either has cancer or is visiting somebody with cancer.” He said, “The last thing they should have to worry about is parking their car.”

Denver: That’s sweet.

Heidi: Right? And so I thought, Oh my God, this is somebody who is so low in the organizational hierarchy. They wouldn’t even be on a classic org. chart. And yet somebody helped these parking attendants understand that they were mission critical, fighting this beast of cancer and making sure that people on that journey had a better experience.

I think we, as leaders, could learn so much from helping people understand the contributions that they’re making and how valuable those are.

Denver: That’s a beautiful story. I had a similar one with somebody I talked to at The Kennedy Center, and he did parking, and he did the behind the scenes, but their CEO, Deborah Rutter, said their number one priority is the customer experience of the people who come.

And when he began to realize what he was doing, to realize the number one priority and the highest value, the purpose and the energy he said he brought to that job changed overnight. So they’re comparable things, but they’re such rich stories.

Heidi: Yeah, absolutely. And again, I would challenge every listener to think about, number one:  What is their role? Like what do I do? How do I play to my strengths such that I’m able to show up day in, day out and believe– not just feel like, but believe– that the organization values my strengths because I am a critical piece of this puzzle that we are trying to put together?

And secondly, I’d challenge every listener to think about: Do they communicate that to everyone around them? Do they help other people to be reflective about their strengths and how those strengths are vital for the organization’s mission?

Denver: Yeah. And when you talk about the power of compounding, what that can do to a culture when everybody feels that way, nothing is impossible. Everything is possible.

Heidi: We have the data.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah.

Heidi: Yeah. I mean, I’m a huge data hound. I’m a total nerd. I love crunching numbers. And there is nothing that we talk about in our research or our recommendations that isn’t grounded in math and science.

So we’ve collected millions of data records from organizations all around the planet, and one of the things that we can demonstrate empirically is exactly what you just said, this compounding effect.

The data shows that when there are teams where, collectively, they believe that… each member believes that they’re playing to their strengths day in, day out… they have the opportunity to do what they do best..there are significant and measurable outcomes, one of which is a clear spike in customer satisfaction.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. No, it’s wonderful when you ask people what do they do best. What was the best moment of their day, where it connected  to their purpose?  And then try to create more and more moments for those people…

Heidi: A hundred percent. Absolutely.

Denver: in a very proactive way. Yeah.

Heidi: Yeah. And so we can make a direct line between customer satisfaction, between productivity, between talent retention. People believing that they are playing to their strengths means that they’re going to stick around and think about that. Those organizations are not just way better at retaining talent, but they’re  retaining talent that is productive and satisfying the customers, so they’re retaining the right talent.

I think it’s absolutely vital for us to have those moments. And like you said, make sure we’re constructing moments on our weekly, monthly, annual journey so that people can understand the progress that they’re making.

One of my other Harvard colleagues wrote a book, Teresa Amabile wrote a book called The Progress Principle, and it demonstrates so clearly and eloquently why it is that when we see frequent progress, even on small steps, it is far more energizing and motivating.

And so sometimes, I think, organizations have these long-term visionary outcomes that they’re working towards, and one action for leadership is to make sure that there are loads of interim milestones so that people can see and experience that sense of momentum and carry it forward.

Denver: It’s the way you train for a marathon. Every day you’re looking at your watch. You know what I mean?

Heidi: That’s it.

Denver: Some of the data you collected and something I really hadn’t thought about as much until I read this book was the importance of a network as it relates to collaboration. Speak to that.

Heidi: Oh my gosh. I love, I love… I wish at this point we could show the visual because we were able to visualize some data. We found two people in our big data set who are so similar to one another. We joked that they’re twins.

They worked in the same organization; they had the same role, in the same department. They shared a whole bunch of demographic characteristics, one of which is they both happened to be men. So I talk about them as “he.”

And what we were able to do is look at the project databases in this organization to see, for twin one versus twin two: How big and how high quality was their network? And what we showed… long story short, is twin one had a very small network, and he was at the center of that network, meaning that he was kind of a bottleneck.

Twin two had not only a much bigger network, but it was much more diverse. He was tapping into people from all across his organization, whereas twin one had a bit more of a homogenous network. And twin two was also much more strategic in terms of how he activated his network.

So we could see in the data that he didn’t just have a bigger network. Bigger isn’t better; better is better. And his network was better because he had more diversity, but he was also much more thoughtful in when he pulled in which people, so his network across a whole year included people that he worked with really frequently, as well as people that he only worked with sporadically, but intentionally.

And the punchline is that those two collaboration patterns resulted in enormously different performance outcomes. We looked at a whole basket of indicators. How good of a job was twin one doing? And how good of a job was twin two doing? And the answer is, twin two was four times higher performance.

Denver: Wow. Yeah. That’s amazing. Just amazing.

Heidi: Yeah. And we can relate it back to all kinds of things that he got out of his network. He had better knowledge and better insights. He had better support. He had more exposure to opportunities. People trusted him.

He had his reputation spread faster. He had access to different kinds of resources. So networks absolutely matter, but only if people are using them in the most productive way possible.

“So there are lots of risks associated with remote working, things like: we don’t build the kind of familiarity and trust that we need with each other. But if we’re intentional about making sure that the humanity stays within our work, then it opens up lots of opportunities for us as well.”

Denver: Mm-hmm. We’ve just come up on three years since the pandemic. It’s hard to believe. I don’t know whether it feels like one or 10, but it is three. What has been the impact of remote work on collaboration, Heidi?

Heidi: So we know a number of things. I’ll rely on some other folks’ research. There was a Microsoft study that showed people are more siloed now than they used to be… remote workers are at least. And one of the reasons for that is we tend to use online collaboration tools like Teams or Zoom in very deliberate ways, which is good.

Because we’re pulling in people whom we need to engage with, but we are oftentimes pulling in the same people again and again, and not expanding our networks. So there’s a risk that people become deeply siloed. They talk with a lot of people, but only people in their function, for example, or only people in their organization.

So one other outcome of remote working is clearly: we need to be much better at thinking about the ecosystem. Not just who do we need to collaborate with inside our organization, but where are the stakeholders that are affected by the kinds of decisions that we make. And maybe that is patient outcomes in the healthcare setting.

Maybe it’s recipient outcomes in a particular kind of nonprofit. But how do we access the broader ecosystem, and literally how do we do that? What’s the best medium that we use, being respectful that not everyone has access to the same kinds of resources that we do? Remote work has made it more important for us to be considerate of what those different kinds of constraints and opportunities are.

The flip side of remote working is now we have the opportunity to much more efficiently pull in voices that we might not have had access to before. So let’s find somebody on the other side of the country or the other side of the planet who’s doing similar work and make sure we’re learning from them.

So there are lots of risks associated with remote working, things like: we don’t build the kind of familiarity and trust that we need with each other. But if we’re intentional about making sure that the humanity stays within our work, then it opens up lots of opportunities for us as well.

Denver: Absolutely. Let me ask you something about the nonprofit sector that you just mentioned. That sector is dealing with some of the most vexing problems that the world faces right now: climate change, poverty, hunger.

And the only way you can ever make a dent on those is to collaborate. But I got to tell you, Heidi, I run into so many organizations that are a little reluctant to collaborate with their other peer organizations because they’re all fighting for the same funding.

They are very protective of their grants and the rest of it. And I didn’t know if you had any thoughts as to the mindset that these organizations really need to bring in order to be able to be effective collaborators with one another.

Heidi: Yeah, Denver. I mean, I’ve been involved on the boards of nonprofits and advising nonprofits, both in my current role and back when I was at McKinsey, and unfortunately, the phenomenon you described is all too common.

The mindset that people need is keeping an eye on what it is that we’re trying to achieve, and figuring out how it is that we make the case that we are far more effective collectively. And then on the backend, figure out how we split credit for that and how we allocate credit, how we use our outcomes in order to convince funders of all sorts that we deserve more money because we’re having better outcomes.

I’d also challenge people in this space to think more clearly about what aspect of the topic they can uniquely address… because the idea of smarter collaboration is to specialize and then team up with complimentary experts or organizations in order to allow each of us to do what we do best.

And I think one problem that nonprofits, that I’ve observed, have is they’re really trying to tackle too big of an issue where they’re not well-equipped to tackle that big issue. If they were able to say, “We’re going to tackle this piece of it excellently and team up with others,” they wouldn’t need the same kinds of resources. They could dedicate the resources they have to going much deeper and becoming far more expert and more efficient at what they do.

Denver: And that’s good advice. I think in some ways, you also need to re educate the board as to what success is because they have an old notion of success. And often, that notion is: How much did our organization do… and not: Are we eliminating the problem that we exist to…  what we’re here to do?

And once you begin to start to think differently along those lines and not see how many meals you served, but: Are fewer people going hungry?  That’s when maybe you can begin to do those things. That’s really, really insightful and great advice.

Heidi: Yeah. I mean, this focus on the outcome, not the inputs, is vital.

“Number one is: reflect on where are your strengths and your passions, because when you can play to those strengths, and when you can engage in something that you find meaningful, for whatever reason, your engagement will allow you to be more successful. Full stop.”

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Finally, Heidi, you recently wrote an article stating that these collaboration skills are surprisingly rare, especially among men. What can a person do to be an exceptional collaborator?

Heidi: Right. So let me just be clear. That article did not say men or women are better at collaboration. We’re relying on data from McKinsey, and a study there that demonstrates in organizations: women tend to spend more time and it translates into putting more effort into collaboration. So let’s clarify what we mean here.

But your question: What can people do to get better at this? Let me give a few pieces of advice. Number one is: reflect on where are your strengths and your passions, because when you can play to those strengths, and when you can engage in something that you find meaningful, for whatever reason, your engagement will allow you to be more successful. Full stop.

And taking time to introspect, to get feedback from other people about where they see your strengths. Oftentimes we have blind spots. And then sometimes to make some tough decisions about aligning our work with those passions and strengths– absolutely vital.

That could mean not necessarily changing jobs, but having a conversation with a supervisor or a group of peers saying: Here’s what I love to do, and here are the things I don’t love to do.

And it could be as simple as saying: Two grant writers– one of them loves the conceptual piece and starting with the first draft, and the other one loves polishing it and making sure it’s proofed and perfect. If you have two grant writers who can team up and play to their strengths like that, rather than each of them handling the grant writing end to end, both of them are going to be more satisfied.

So number one, figure out what your strengths are and how you use them to your best abilities at work. Number two piece of advice is:  making sure that you are intentional about where you’re spending your energy. Are you joining the right meetings? Are you joining initiatives at the right time?

If you’re the one convening teams, do you have exactly the right people, and have you equipped them to bring their best to the meeting, to the project as a whole? That’s your job as a leader, and being really thoughtful about that.

Last, I would say that that was at the individual level, that was if you’re a team leader. If you’re the leader of an organization, I’m going to go back to one of my first points, is: start with a strategy. What is it that you’re trying to achieve? What are those outcomes that really make a difference?

And have you aligned the organization? Have you put in the right systems and structures? Do you have the right people? Is everyone there under clear guidance as to how they should prioritize their precious time and other resources? As a leader, I think that’s one of the most important things that you can do.

Denver: Fantastic. The name of the book is Smarter Collaboration: A New Approach to Breaking Down Barriers and Transforming Work. Every listener should pick up a copy. I read it end to end. It is just an absolutely fabulous piece of work.

Dr. Heidi K. Gardner, thank you so much for being here today. It was a real delight to have you on the show.

Heidi: Thank you so much.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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