When Collaboration Fails and How to Fix It

Leaders can diagnose team dysfunction by looking for six common patterns.

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Beth was excited when her CEO asked if she would take over a high-profile commercialization project — one expected to double the audiovisual technology company’s revenues in the coming decade and diversify its offerings. She would be replacing a valued leader who was leaving the organization. The project had been struggling, but it was still early days, and the potential upside was amazing. Beth accepted the assignment on the spot.

In her first week, Beth dug in. She found the project fully funded and staffed by 64 carefully selected people from departments across the company, including engineering, marketing, finance, and quality assurance. Three concurrent work streams — focusing on research, product development, and marketing and sales — had been established and a well-respected leader appointed for each.

Yet, 10 months later, the project was badly behind schedule and bogged down. Everyone with whom Beth spoke was frustrated with the slow pace of progress. They were all pointing fingers, but in different directions. The CEO believed the problem was a failure of leadership in the three work streams. The departing project leader blamed team members for not devoting enough time to the project. One team member said the problem was poor meeting management; another said key decisions weren’t being made in a timely manner.

What should Beth do? Appoint new work stream leaders? Relaunch the project? Restructure the group or the work? Add more people to the project team? Schedule more meetings or provide an online work platform?

It’s too soon to say. At this juncture, all Beth really knows is that the project is a collaborative effort critical to the success of the organization and that the effort is failing.

Collaborative failures can stem from a variety of conditions. Sometimes they are woven into the fabric of groups when they are formed, perhaps because team members’ incentives are misaligned or decision rights haven’t been defined.



1. “The Three A’s of Organizational Agility: Reinvention Through Disruption,” Institute for Corporate Productivity, April 2018, https://www.i4cp.com.

2. E. Volini, I. Roy, J. Schwartz, et al., “Organizational Performance: It’s a Team Sport,” Deloitte, April 11, 2019, www2.deloitte.com.

3. R. Cross, R. Rebele, and A. Grant, “Collaborative Overload,” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 1 (January-February 2016): 74-79.

4. R. Cross and R.J. Thomas, “Driving Results Through Social Networks: How Top Organizations Leverage Networks for Performance and Growth” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).

5. R. Cross, A. Edmondson, and W. Murphy, “A Noble Purpose Alone Won’t Transform Your Company,” MIT Sloan Management Review 61, no. 2 (winter 2020): 37-43; R. Cross, S. Taylor, and D. Zehner, “Collaboration Without Burnout,” Harvard Business Review 96, no. 4 (July-August 2018): 134-137; and G. Ballinger, R. Cross, and B. Holtom, “The Right Friends in the Right Places: Understanding Network Structure as a Predictor of Voluntary Turnover,” Journal of Applied Psychology 101, no. 4 (April 2016): 535-548.

6. A. Crocker, R. Cross, and H. Gardner, “How to Make Sure Agile Teams Can Work Together,” Harvard Business Review, May 15, 2018, https://hbr.org; and R. Cross, T. Davenport, and P. Gray, “Collaborate Smarter, Not Harder,” MIT Sloan Management Review 61, no. 1 (fall 2019): 20-28.

7. The interviewees work in the consulting, consumer products, financial services, health care, hospitality, insurance, life sciences, manufacturing, and software industries.

8. R. Cross, W. Baker, and A. Parker, “What Creates Energy in Organizations?” MIT Sloan Management Review 44 no. 4 (summer 2003): 51-57.

9. Cross, Davenport, and Gray, “Collaborate Smarter, Not Harder”; R. Cross, T. Opie, G. Pryor, et al., “Connect and Adapt: How Network Development and Transformation Improve Retention and Engagement in Employees’ First Five Years,” Organization Dynamics 47, no. 2 (July-September 2018): 115-123; and Ballinger, Cross, and Holtom, “The Right Friends.”

10. Cross, Rebele, and Grant, “Collaborative Overload.”

11. M. Arena, J. Sims, R. Cross, et al., “Groundswell: Tapping the Power of Employee Networks to Fuel Emergent Innovation,” Connected Commons, April 2017, https://connectedcommons.com.

12. G. Tett, “The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

13. R. Cross, H. Gardner, and A. Crocker, “Networks for Agility: Collaborative Practices Critical to Agile Transformation,” Connected Commons, March 2019, https://connectedcommons.com.


The authors received support and funding for the research behind this article from the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources.

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Comments (4)
Jose Santiago
An interest set of dysfunctions and often can be seen in various stages across any organization. Reading this I could identify several without to much difficulty. The real challenge leis in having leaders take a step away from their personal and domain agendas and see what is happening in the teams and projects. This make me think that reflection and reduced demand on time or better changing their demand is a key element for collaborative success to occur. CHRO and CEO's should look at team coaching to increase awareness and even look at incentive changes.
Ron Dekker
Very recognisable, but issues are also spread over the six dysfunctions. It would be great if you could score each item in the 'Exhibit' to discover/reveal the main issues. A link to solutions would also be nice.
Joseph Akubilla
This is a great article with so much information. I also agree with Paul's assessment regarding #4 and #6. I believe linking them would facilitate a deeper understanding of the dynamics of Node and Network capacity. Thank you.
Paul ONeill
Great article!

As with most problems it comes down to a combination of People, Process & Technology, and getting the right mix of those. Sometimes organizations rush to fix these challenges with more (collaboration) technology which can make the problem worse, because they ignore, or even exacerbate, the underlying problems outlined in the article.

At NolijWork, our thinking is that "work" within the modern enterprise should be thought of as a "network of networks", in which the nodes are people or technology. Technology scales easily BUT people don't.

I would suggest #4 (Overwhelmed Nodes) and #6 (Priority Overload) are linked because they relate to the capacity of individual nodes, and to the capacity of individual networks. The remainder relate to the "modelling" and "operation" of the networks themselves.  

Organizations lack transparency of these people networks within their enterprises, which is why they struggle to address these challenges. 

Imho tackling these challenges requires new terminology (i.e. labels) for these particular problems, that can be recognized at the C-suite level. Unless the C-suite "gets" the problem, then solutions will take longer to emerge.