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What’s the Biggest Collaboration Mistake Companies Make?

Mike Santoro

Last week, I sat on a panel to share ideas about collaboration in modern professional services firms. I was joined by Jim Signorelli, CEO of eswStoryLab, Sarah Miller Caldicott, noted Thomas Edison expert and author of Midnight Lunch, and Bret Tushaus, Product Director at Deltek. The panel was led by Maria Vedral, President of SilverEdge.


I was asked, “What’s the biggest mistake that professional services firms make when it comes to collaboration?”

The biggest mistake I see professional services firms make is assuming that collaboration will naturally happen. Collaboration doesn’t just happen if you throw a bunch of creative people together. It needs to be designed, nurtured and rewarded.

Right Culture

Collaboration starts at the top and it takes the right leaders in place to start collaboration. Good collaboration can’t be forced upon people. It needs to be part of the company culture.

The day of the presentation, I was reviewing the Walker Sands marketing plan with our marketing manager. An intern was observing and I asked her what we were doing wrong. She seemed surprised to be asked, but gave a number of really good pieces of feedback. I guarantee she’ll be more likely to share her ideas in the future and be willing to ask others herself.

Every day we try to set the tone in this manner and the benefits reflect this.

Right People

Some people don’t want to be collaborative, the famed lone wolf, if you will and still be very successful. You can run a very successful business with these type of people, but they quickly kill a collaborative culture.

We are very selective about the people we hire and part of that selection process is determining how collaborative a potential employee can be. Sometimes we make a mistake in this area and we pay for it.

Right Environment

A good collaborative environment should enable collaboration, not stifle it. Our current office is completely open and structured into small pods of six to eight team members working together. The proximity and close space allows quick communication and idea sharing within and across teams.

You hear things in passing in an open office that can lead to further conversations and that’s by design. Open offices aren't so great for private health conversations, but perfect for idea sharing and collaboration. And you can always grab a conference room for those private conversations.

We’re considering an office move and looking at designs. The architectural firm we’re working with, Wright Heereman, talks about designing “collision zones." Collision zones are designed into an office so that people bump into each other and feel comfortable enough to stay and chat about what they are doing. Think a coffee bar, a group of comfy chairs or a nice spot by an especially awesome window. Design plays a huge impact on collaboration.

High Value

Most importantly, collaboration needs to come with reward. There are plenty of social collaboration tools that reward people with points and badges, but I’m talking about real reward. When people collaborate they need to get something out of it. They need to learn something new or feel great about having shared something with someone else.

This all goes back to the people you hire. You need to hire good collaborators, but also people that are good at what they do. People who respect one another and learn from one another are great collaborators. If you surround a great collaborator with a bunch of duds then that great collaborator doesn’t have a ton to incentive to continue collaborating.

It is important to not only find good collaborators, but also bring together people with diverse skill sets. Those two components will lead to a fantastic learning environment which lifts the whole firm.