The Collaboration Pyramid revisited

Bron: Oscar Berg

There has been a lot of buzz on Twitter recently about The Collaboration Pyramid model that I developed a few years ago. It started when Helen Bevan shared a redrawn version by Jim Farrell.

The model has received a lot of praise, but it has also been met with criticism. An image can be worth a thousand words, but an image such as this allows a lot of interpretation. It is hard to understand exactly what the model is intended for and how to interpret it just by looking at it. For example, model has compared the model to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”, likely because Maslow’s model is also illustrated as a pyramid. It lead to the conclusion that the activities in the lower layers are more basic and thus easier/less complex than the activities in the layers further up in the pyramid. But I didn’t use the pyramid shape to indicate a scale of activities from basic to advanced. The model doesn’t say that the lower levels are simpler or less complex that the upper ones. Rather, it’s the other way around. What the model does is highlighting the very complex social interaction and relationship building activities that are needed for collaboration to happen. Many of these activities are so complex that we have a hard time understanding them and how they connect to simpler activities such as forming a team or coordinating clearly defined activities within a team. Hence organizations don’t do a good job at supporting and encouraging these activities, especially not across teams and locations.

So, to make it easier to interpret the model in the way I intended, I will try to add some flesh to the bones in this post.

The Collaboration Pyramid Explained

The Collaboration Pyramid is intended as a tool that will help organizations to understand what they need to do to make collaboration happen naturally across groups and locations, as well as to increase the effectiveness of collaboration efforts. The model consists of 8 layers, building on each other from the bottom and up. The top 3 layers represent activities that we typically think of as parts of structured team-based collaboration, such as forming the team, coordinating activities, and carrying out the actual activities. These are often formalized, visible, measured and evaluated, just as the result that the team produces. The activities in the 5 lower layers are activities of more social nature, and activities not bound to a particular collaboration effort, such as people introducing themselves to each other, having informal conversations, connecting, creating and sharing information with each other, and so forth. Things that happen on a daily basis, embedded in the daily work.

The activities in these layers happen naturally when people are in close proximity. When people are close, it is easy to be introduced to each other, and to spontaneously meet or go and talk to each other. And what begins an informal and spontaneous conversation might then evolve into a collaboration effort. But as soon as people are located more than 50 feet away from each other, the likelihood that they will meet and have an informal and spontaneous conversation drops dramatically. And so does the likelihood that collaboration will happen naturally.

What is more, these activities, in the lower 5 layers, happen “below the surface”, so to say. Management rarely put any attention to these activities, at least not beyond their own teams, and some even regard them as waste, not work. The activities are usually not visible, recognized, or valued by organizations. Yet, these activities are fundamental both for collaboration to happen, and for a lot of other value-creation to take place. Below the surface you typically find:

  • The activities that allow people to get to know each other, build relationships, and understand what others can contribute.
  • The direct and indirect contributions from people outside the team – by the extended team, stakeholders, and external contributors.
  • The ongoing community building that makes people build trust in each other and commit themselves to a shared purpose.
  • The efforts of gaining the workspace awareness that is necessary for making the right decisions in any collaborative effort

The collaboration pyramid illustrates a problem within large and distributed organizations, namely that the activities in the 5 lower layers are hard to scale beyond organizational groups and geographic locations, something that contributes to the creation of organizational silos and groupthink. It is more likely that you will communicate and collaborate more frequently and spontaneously with other members of your group and people in your close proximity than you will with people in other groups and at other locations. If your network stretches further and you have ties to people in other groups, then some communication and collaboration might happen spontaneously across groups.

The problem is that in a large and dispersed organization, most people don’t get the chance to develop relationships to people outside their own groups, and hence their social networks are often limited to people that belong to the same organizational group and to people in their close proximity. Those who perform really well in the lower levels are those who have visibility in the hierarchical organization and who have the resources and mandate to invest in these activities. These people are usually not the ones who have the skills and expertise to solve the wicked, complex problems organizations are facing, or who have the ideas that might result in new innovations that might get or keep the organization ahead of the competition. These people are usually to be found in the lowest levels of the organization, on the grassroots level.

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