Collaboration is a key, trendy concept in academic work, but is any and all collaboration automatically good? No, says professor Morten Hansen in his 2009 book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results. Rather, high-performing leaders promote good collaborations instead of just any collaboration. He labels good collaborations with one specific adjective: “disciplined.”

To Hansen, a management professor at the University of California at Berkeley, disciplined collaboration avoids four common barriers: a not-invented-here attitude, hoarding, difficulties searching for collaborators, and problems in communication transfers. The book suggests curing these conceptual barriers with three antidotes: unity, “T-shaped management,” and nimble networking.

T-shaped management deserves some unpacking. First, I must note that this concept was developed for the business setting, not for the more socially complex world of academic science. The vertical part of the T describes relationships with a business’ customers or clientele. That vertical element, while important, cannot wholly encompass work because multidisciplinary teams have become increasingly vital to solving large problems. Such teamwork is the horizontal component. This component, too, falls short on its own because teamwork without productivity makes people into “social butterflies.” Hansen encourages us to do both vertical and horizontal parts and neglect neither in our work.

Hansen grounds his analysis in business studies. He even adds an entire section at the book’s end to describe the academic support for his arguments. Although the text is conversational and not dense, its ideas are clearly refined by science’s rigor. The ideas are refined and crisp, and the examples, persuasive and realistic. His approach tends towards organizational leadership, not one-on-one relationships, and focuses on structuring collaborative relationships.

Hansen clearly addresses the primary audience of the wider business community in this book, but there’s no reason that academic work can’t be included. He’s clearly a proponent of a collegial style, popular in the research community, that eschews a detached, autocratic manner that might be associated with the traditional corporate world.

Occasional things do limit its translation to the research community. I found Chapter 2 in particular didn’t address me as a researcher directly and probably doesn’t address most readers of this blog. This chapter makes the business case for collaboration and details why he surmises that collaboration promotes bigger profits that a traditional command-and-control management style. I’m not sure most academics need to hear this argument because graduate training already sold most of us on collaboration’s value.

Most helpfully, this book encouraged me to reflect on my work relationships and how I can maximize their value for the greater good. It’s easy for me to fall into some of the specific relational traps he mentions, like maintaining weak relationships where strong ties are needed and building strong relationships where weaker ties are better suited. It’s likewise easy for me to fall prey to colleagues’ relational tendencies. Being able to see and name these habits clearly will help me collaborate with more discipline, productivity, and reason.

Overall, I appreciate this book’s deep look at the topic of collaboration. Although the stories are good, the ideas behind them drive the book’s value. The work successfully dissects the “soft” topic of collaboration with the rigor of good research. It has me pondering ways I can make the most of Hansen’s analytic insights in my professional life.

Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results, by Morten Hansen.

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