Jeffrey S. Deckman is the founder of Capability Accelerators, a company that specializes in leadership and management development. He is serial entrepreneur in the IT sector and served as board chairman of Tech Collective from 2000 to 2005.
Deckman spoke with Providence Business News about his recent lecture on “The Art and Science of Effective Collaboration” at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Advanced Technology & Manufacturing Center on March 12.
PBN: Why are collaborations so critical for businesses in the modern economy, specifically in the technology sector?
DECKMAN: Because they are rapidly emerging as the most powerful and exciting business model of the new economy. While they do have their unique challenges they are flatter, more nimble, adaptable and scalable in response to opportunities than the traditional “single company” model.
And because the model attributes is rise in popularity to the exponential advancements in, and the global proliferation of, technology, it only makes sense that the technology sector should excel at using them.
Technology has completely redefined both the speed at which business is done and the rate at which innovation occurs. It has also simultaneously given organizations the ability to instantly communicate with partners, both local and global, both through the use of document transfers or “face to face” video teleconferencing.
Well designed collaborations have always been extremely effective against a single competitor. Recently they have become more common because technology has virtually eliminated the two largest barriers to doing them: the geographic proximity of the collaborators to one another and the time it takes for them to communicate with one another.
So it is soon getting to the point where if you can’t collaborate you won’t be able to compete with those who can.
PBN: How did your experience as board chairman of Tech Collective inform your perspective on collaboration?
DECKMAN: The Tech-Collective uses a fascinating collaboration model that is called an “Industry Cluster.” IC’s are very different from traditional trade associations in that they live or die based upon their ability to collaborate. They also often collaborate with various non-industry stakeholders who share a common goal to radically impact a specific industry.
For our part we were focused on the IT sector and we targeted 4 powerful groups who normally don’t like one another for collaboration: Business, Higher Education, government agencies and select politicians. Plus we were a non-profit.
The purpose of the collaboration was to significantly impact the workforce development, economic development and entrepreneurship opportunities in the IT sector and to establish a nationally recognized and sustainable IT community in Rhode Island.
Over a five year period, from 2000 to 2005, I learned to have ferocious patience; to blend being committed to the mission with being flexible on how we accomplish it and how to facilitate meaningful compromises while maintaining authenticity, integrity and respect for all involved.
But the most important lesson I learned, by far, was how powerful well designed and implemented collaborations can be. Within our first 4 years, due to the dedication and cooperation of our collaborating partners, we were able to bring in $15 million dollars of federal workforce development funds into the state. We also catapulted Rhode Island from 21st to an 11th place ranking in the Milken Institute State Science and Technology Index, the biggest jump of any state.
After mastering the IT sector we then expanded our collaboration efforts to include the Life Sciences industry. The organization also passed the test of sustainability as it enters its 14th year of existence. This is a testament to the power of a solid design, and exciting goal and people who have perfected the art and science of collaboration.
PBN: At UMass Dartmouth’s Advanced Technology & Manufacturing Center, you spoke about “The Art and Science of Effective Collaboration.” How do you distinguish between the “art” and the “science”?
DECKMAN: The science portion of a collaboration refers to the fact that are definite rules and dynamics that one must be aware of during the life of a collaboration but especially during its design phase. These factors include things like how potential partners are vetted; how decisions are made and conflicts resolved; who is empowered and under what circumstance; what compensation is given to whom; what constitutes success and other mechanical aspects of the arrangement.
Entering into a collaboration without addressing these issues is like setting sail for a cross Atlantic journey without carefully designing your vessel. Disaster will strike during your first storm which normally occurs long after you left the safety of land and long before you arrive to your destination.
The artistry portion of a collaboration refers to things like how relationships are managed; how to lead using influence rather than power; how to stay aligned during duress; how to deal with egos without activating your own; how to adapt and innovate in response to changing conditions and how to establish a strong and resilient culture amongst the collaborators. These are all “heart and art” issues and as such cannot be predicted or have responses mechanically mapped out.
PBN: What are the biggest misconceptions business leaders have about collaborating with other corporations, institutions or agencies?
DECKMAN: While many people have good intentions when they ask others to collaborate with them on a venture they often don’t realize what expectations they are setting with those who accept the invitation. So unexpected challenges can occur as a result.
The most frequent mistake people make it to confuse a collaboration with a “collection.” By that I mean that if your intention is to collect talent and resources to get behind an idea you have and then direct those resources like you would employees, vendors or subcontractors then don’t pitch it to your targets as a collaboration.
When people hear “collaboration” they rightly assume they will be acting as an equal partner in the process. They expect they will be empowered during the design and implementation phase and will be have a lot to say about how the collaboration is run.
If you don’t plan on empowering them to that degree you will find yourself in your first conflict. Then if they realize you were just collecting them to get their resources behind your idea but will not be equals they feel manipulated. Upsets can occur, egos can flare up and your collaboration can flame out.
So it is important that you are honest with yourself about how much equality you are willing to offer and then be specific with your language and honor your word.
PBN: How can the leaders of companies and organizations encourage more successful collaborations and make the most of opportunities to exchange information and talent with others?
DECKMAN: In my experience, nothing creates more intrinsic motivation and commitment to collaborate than awesome game changing opportunities. And those opportunities are very simply defined by the level of excitement the prospect of success generates in your potential partners.
The size of the potential pay-off often determines the size of commitment you can get from the people involved.
It doesn’t matter to me whether those pay offs improve people’s finances, reputations, resumes or their sense of self. What matters to me is that I understand what inspires them; that I believe the collaboration can deliver for them and that the possibility motivates them to work as tirelessly towards success as I will.
So look for exciting opportunities that inspire dreams and passions and will have an impact. Find partners who share your passion; who can provide valuable resources and energy to the project and who will play nice in the sandbox. Then design it properly, launch it and get prepared to “ride the tiger!”