The Future of Collaboration is Here  –  It's Just Not Equally Distributed Yet

04/08/2020 – Sarah Hoidn

The whole world seems to be discussing the future of working together. Often, we hear talk of the end of hierarchies, of the triumph of holocracy: Fixed structures are a thing of the past, decisions are made together or by those who have the most expertise  –  regardless of job title or income level. Still, in reality, this future can only rarely be seen. Welcome to the transition. It's high time to talk about the interplay of structure and strategy, different organizational structures, and project work based on real partnership.

Challenge 1: Structure vs. Strategy

As phrase-like as it sounds: the only constant in the current and future world of working is change. To remain competitive, established companies must keep pace with social, economic and technological change and be able to react quickly. This requires speed, adaptability and a willingness to embrace structural change. According to the change managers* and consultants surveyed, rigid processes and traditional structures are the obstacles. Or as the people at TU Munich (2018, GER) put it: "The organizational structure is the most important thing that companies have to change against the background of digitization."

From the point of view of low hierarchy, holocratic or circularly structured agencies and young companies, this is easy to criticize. However, it is just as easy for traditionalists to dismiss the outside advice. According to a 2016 survey by the Kienbaum Institute, 55 percent of the employees of various medium-sized and large companies surveyed are themselves of the opinion that their current organizational structure is unsuitable for the future. This position is also held by the majority of managers surveyed by Deloitte (2016).

"As companies strive to become more agile and customer-focused, organizations are shifting their structures from traditional, functional models toward interconnected, flexible teams. More than nine out of 10 executives surveyed (92 percent) rate organizational structure as a top priority, and nearly half (45 percent) report that their companies are either in the middle of a restructuring process (39 percent) or planning one (6 percent)."

To put it bluntly: traditionally positioned companies sabotage themselves structurally in their own innovation projects. Where innovation and digital competitiveness become impossible on their own, companies often turn to outside agencies, consultancies or start-ups for support.

This is a good idea, because ambitious digital initiatives are more likely to emerge from collaboration. Therefore, the involvement of and exchange among partners, service providers and customers is worthwhile for all sides. Partnerships - especially if they are long-term - give project work a more binding character. In a working world where tasks and decision-making are becoming increasingly complex, collaboration is essential and collaboration, openness and diversity are a competitive advantage ("Diversity is a competitive advantage", McKinsey Studies).

Challenge 2: Collaboration between different organizational structures

Within rigid corporate structures, not only internal cooperation is usually somewhat difficult, but above all, the external cooperation with project partners, digital agencies and start-ups. As is so often the case, the challenge lies in communication - in our experience, especially communication among different hierarchical levels.

In the best case, only opportunities for exchange with digital players on the market, know-how transfer and cooperation are carelessly wasted. In the worst case, entire digitalization projects and strategies fail because of incompatible structures and communication.
In the current world of work - a potpourri of organizational models - how do we manage to work together successfully across companies, to convey valuable information and to communicate in a way that is compatible for all structures?

"Closing the Gap" between different organizational structures

From the outside, agencies can hardly change anything about the structures, which project partners adhere to. However, it is possible to react to them in two ways:

  1. by adapting their own processes in the course of working together and
  2. through explicit strategic guidance.

How do we do that? In the reality of the project, we adapt our communication methods, means and processes to the extent that they are compatible with the structures of our clients. In other words: We actively shape cooperation and communication by establishing several direct contact persons for different areas within the project.

We counter hierarchical structures on the client side by reflecting them non-hierarchically through introducing additional roles: Besides Product Owner, Technical Director and Scrum Master, we have also introduced the role of Strategic Project Development. In short: We replicate project partners' organizational structures without being hierarchical ourselves to enable communication at different levels.
This role of strategic project support acts as a kind of filter, which makes sure the developer team has creative leeway and at the same time analyzes requests from the client regarding benefits and feasibility, advises accordingly and can intervene at an early stage. This is an advantage for the agile team, as it lightens the load for team members who are particularly responsible for communication tasks, such as product owners and project managers.

The introduction of an additional project or communication level allows us to divide collaborating into a strategic and operational level. This allows more freedom in shaping the project. Especially in large projects this can relieve both sides and at the same time increase the probability of successful implementation.

Collaboration as Partners

"[In digitalization,] tasks are so complex that they can only be implemented in partnership. Therefore, solutions can no longer simply be presented and sold, but strategic, long-term partnerships are needed in order to find and develop solutions together."
–  Alexander Janthur, founder & CEO of Turbine Kreuzberg

But what exactly does that mean? For us, working together in partnership means: building real trust with project partners who come from a differently organized company structure, moving away from stakeholder management and towards stakeholder trust. In the best case, this leads to the elimination of many feedback loops. It also makes unnecessary, costly communication measures superfluous, which previously served purely as safeguards.

By jointly designing not only the project, but also collaboration and communication individually, we can establish really meaningful processes, coordination and controlling loops, hold regular meetings and distribute tasks. It is therefore a question of real joint responsibility for the project and the cooperation. Doing it this way increases peace of mind for both sides - by working together as partners, distributing information on an equal footing and being able to intervene at an early stage in case of errors.
Be involved, stay involved.

Future work, even within companies, will be more and more project-oriented. Clear boundaries between internal and external roles, which in many places were previously regarded as natural, are becoming increasingly blurred.

In order to deal with this, new forms of cooperation must be developed; it is a question of agencies being actively involved in innovative projects and joint ventures. This interweaving of structures, right down to the financial aspect, inevitably leads to a high level of commitment from all those involved in future projects and thus to greater success. Gone are the times when projects were delivered more badly than right, based on the motto: After us, the flood.

Digitalization, innovation and the complexity that comes with them are unsettling. They require additional, qualitative communication and trustful cooperation. Successful communication and cooperation is based on understanding, trust, security and transparency - and thus above all on stakeholders who are involved from the very beginning, who help shape the strategy throughout the project and who remain continuously involved.

The goal: joint success of the project, not merely making one side happy

We are in a period of transition - a conglomerate in which traditional, rigidly hierarchical systems exist just as much as holocratically organized start-ups, young companies and agencies. However: not independently, but in a lively and direct exchange. Therefore, the future of work requires the courage to really cooperate. In times of omnipresent pressure to innovate, greater complexity of decisions and varying options, the common goal should be to create synergies from structure and strategy - and to enable cooperation in partnership. For the project. Because that is what counts.