Can you risk not collaborating?

Half a billion (yes, that’s a “b”) users had their Yahoo accounts hacked in one of history’s biggest ever cyber-attacks, according to news reports last week.  Security experts write that the threat landscape has grown increasingly complex, with attackers weaving together all sorts of malicious tools and gaining access through every imaginable entry point in a company.  No company can ward off these threats unless they have a comprehensive, cross-organizational initiative that brings together multiple kinds of experts including not only the IT and security functions but also HR, manufacturing and logistics, public relations, legal, customer service, and others.  It’s not surprise, therefore, that clients are asking (or perhaps more accurately: demanding) that their highly specialized professional advisers work across all sorts of boundaries in order to deliver an integrated approach to managing risks –not just cybersecurity, but numerous others like it that are not only increasingly complex and multidisciplinary, but also increasingly keeping executives awake at night.

Getting specialist experts to team up and integrate their knowledge to solve complex, sophisticated problems that none could tackle alone: that’s the definition of collaboration.  And smart leaders are increasingly waking up to the fact that collaboration is not just a “nice to have,” but rather a business imperative for increasing profits, gaining competitive advantage, attracting the hottest talent… and now, as a way to prevent and manage enterprise risk. This post talks about two kinds of risk that are serious issues for today’s professional service firms: malpractice and financial implosion.  First, collaboration gives firms greater oversight of their partners’ work, thereby reducing the potential for the kinds of misbehavior that some professional firms’ insurers put into the colorful categories of “dabblers,” “body snatchers,” and “lone wolves.”  Second, collaboration across functions, hierarchies, and geographies is necessary to handle existential risks such financial demise.

A dabbler is someone who has a clearly defined area of expertise, but who, when a client brings up a problem outside that area, declines to search out a colleague with the relevant expertise, and instead says, “I think I could stretch just far enough to tackle that problem –by myself.”  Think it doesn’t happen that often?  Wrong! In the PSF arena, malpractice claims have skyrocketed in recent years.  Why?  As market pressures increase, some professionals start gaming the system.  In an effort to maintain their personal edge and expand their marketability, they begin to promise solutions they can’t deliver.  One study by the American Bar Association, for example, found that nearly half the malpractice claims were the result of substantive errors by the lawyers involved, rather than failed processes within the firm. The lawyers didn’t know the relevant law well enough, didn’t apply it well enough, failed to anticipate the implications of their advice, and so on.  The kinds of mistakes are likely to be caught when the right expert is brought into the mix.  “Mistakes have supplanted client misconduct and conflicts,” a contact at a professional firm’s insurer told me recently, “and the failure to collaborate is a key part of those claims.” Unfortunately, it’s not just the individual who’s on the hook, in such cases; it’s also the firm that is at risk.

The lone wolf is someone who keeps a client account exclusively under his own control, which is another kind of risky behavior.  When no peers are allowed access to the account records or personnel, the risk of unauthorized activities increases dramatically. That’s the reason, for example, that both Europe’s banking authorities and the US Securities and Exchange Commission have recommended that banks require their traders to take two-week holidays, during which their colleagues would take over their books and ensure that all activity was above board.  Ongoing collaboration, spread over time and across multiple team members, would enhance transparency even more.

Finally, body snatchers are people who try to supervise extensive amounts of work conducted by juniors in another department, rather than involve any of those subordinates’ own supervisors. Body snatchers are typically motivated by financial metrics that allow them to use lower-cost resources outside their own unit. Or perhaps their own resources are constrained. Or perhaps they know they can get away with abusive behavior (demanding extraordinary hours, say, or yelling, or failing to give credit) when the junior resides elsewhere.   The risk, though, is that body snatchers have neither the expertise to conduct appropriate quality control nor the authority over the junior staff to handle issues through formal processes, such as performance reviews. By encouraging teams of partner-level peers to collaborate, firms can help to prevent the sorts of errors and abuse caused by body snatchers.

Deliberate malpractice in professional service firms is admittedly rare, but when it happens, it can be fatal.   What can you do to protect yourself and your firm?  Nothing can entirely eliminate these risks, of course. But having more informed eyes on the account—one natural by-product of collaboration—can certainly mitigate risks.  A beneficial corollary of collaboration is, of course, the likelihood that your firm is better placed to help clients to handle their own complex risks and opportunities.

The second kind of risk that collaboration can help to prevent is financial melt-down.  In his award-winning book Enterprise Risk Management: From Incentives to Controls, risk expert James Lam writes that the first principle of risk management is “Know Your Business.”  Everyone, he argues, from the Board of Directors through to front-line employees should understand operational processes, key revenue and cost drivers, and exposure points.  He cites convincing —and scary—cases of major organizations that have imploded when managers didn’t understand the nitty-gritty of their business well enough.

Can you honestly say that your partners clearly understand the link between, say, their write-off decisions, accounts receivables, associate utilization, and the practice group profitability?  I doubt it, and here’s why: Most –yes, truly, most –of the senior leaders who come to executive education programs at Harvard confess that they didn’t truly understand some of the nuances that could ultimately put their financials at risk.  So it’s not a large leap of imagination to realize that a large swath of your partnership is also making uninformed daily decisions that could ultimately lead to a cascade of profit-draining troubles.

Yet in most professional firms, the lines of defense against such financial disaster—people, tools, training—remain siloed in individual departments, offices, or practice groups.  The group head is rarely chosen for his or her financial acumen; some (many?) seek a leadership role for the associated status, with little interest in learning core management processes like budgeting and forecasting.  Also, many group leaders are unwilling to take time away from client opportunities in order to dig into individual partner’s accounts, so they don’t have a clear handle on risks being incurred.  Furthermore, because their reputation is often linked to the unit’s growth, rather than profitability, they pay scant attention to the true bottom line and are dis-incentivized to widely report any problems they do notice or even ask for help from fellow department leaders across the firm.  Department members who observe this laissez faire attitude toward risk might think it gives them license to become dabblers –or worse.

In some firms, the tools and data about risks are walled off from those on-the-ground professionals who need to know.  One advisory to law firms wrote, “In my consulting practice I spend a lot of time reviewing practice group strategy and finances, and quite often I’m advised not to share these confidential data with partners (partners!) in these practices.  It’s startling how many law firms still embrace a closed system in which many if not most of the partners are excluded from the financial operations of the firm.” Moreover, the people in professional service firms who do have information about risks and may be willing to share it are undervalued because they’re “staff” instead of client-facing professionals.  True collaboration across this hierarchical divide is still shockingly rare.

In sum, firms need a more disciplined and collaborative approach to manage financial risk.  They must put in place explicit processes to increase and integrate their partners’ knowledge about operational and client risks, and hold everyone accountable for acting on that knowledge.  Given the sophistication of the threats at hand —cybersecurity perhaps top among them—it’s now more important than ever for professionals to collaborate across organizational silos to identify, prevent and mitigate enterprise risks.  Before it’s too late.

***  What are the best practice examples of risk management in your firm, within and especially across different business units or locations?  Do you have ways to develop professionals’ knowledge about risks (financial, operational, reputational, etc.), and to help them understand how their actions influence outcomes?  Any examples of a time when you de-risked a situation or prevented a bad outcome by collaborating across siloes to identify the issue?  ***

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on This post is the initial foray into research on the links between collaboration and risk management. Please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.

Last point:  “Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos” is now at the printers!  It is available for pre-order on Amazon, and will be shipping later this autumn.



Structural overlays to boost cross-discipline working

I’m writing a new article for Harvard Business Review that expands on some material from my book (more info on the book launch coming soon), and looking for an example for the following paragraph:

It’s important to create an organizational structure that supports cross-discipline collaboration.  This may be less about changing existing, formal reporting lines and more about creating an overlay, as was the case at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. [which is explained earlier in the article].   Such overlays are relatively common in large professional service firms, which are now moving toward a sector-based approach that mirrors their clients’ industries and helps align internal experts with the needs of those industries.  But there are plenty of other types of companies bringing together their employees in creative, informal ways to promote innovation or serve customers better.  For example, ___.

Do you know of any non-PSF examples that fit the bill of using “creative, informal ways” or structures to promote innovation or improve customer service?   Perhaps a Center of Excellence that brings together experts across various business units to tackle an issue in a more customer-centric way?  Any leads welcome (articles, anecdotes, contacts, etc.).

Clients’ Point of View – New American Lawyer article

Hot off the press: American Lawyer just published my article, “When and Why Clients
Want You to Collaborate,” which you can access using the link below.  As you’ll see, I’ve used many of the ideas and inputs from you, my Board of Contributors.  Thank you!

This material also features in the final chapter of my book, “SMART COLLABORATION: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos.”    Having received feedback from the editor and several reviewers, I’m now revising the final manuscript.  It’s due in one week (June 1st).  I’ll keep you posted on progress.

In addition, I’ve launched several new streams of research in the last few months.  Each examines a more specific angle about collaboration: gender (!), leadership, and a couple top secret ones.  I’ll begin publishing some early findings within the next few weeks.


This is my first-ever progress update (instead of ideas from the book), but these 2 important steps warrant a post:

  • I have submitted the full manuscript to Harvard Business Press, and it’s currently under editorial review, and
  • We have agreed on a full title: “SMART COLLABORATION: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos

I cannot wait for you to read it!  You’ll see that many of your comments – both publicly posted ones and privately emailed ones–have deeply influenced my thinking.  Once I see what the editor returns, I’ll come back to you individually if we’re going to use a direct quote, even if it’s unattributed.

It’s still hard to predict when the book will actually come out in print.  After I revise it based on the editor’s feedback, the manuscript then gets sent out for peer review.  Depending on the extensive of those comments –and the speed with which I can revise it –the book should go into copy editing in the spring.  From there, it’s even less in my control (which, I’m sure you know, will drive me nuts).

I’m committed to keeping this Idea Space active, and will begin posting new content within the next couple weeks.  I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Collaborative technology platforms

By rolling out a technology platform to help efficiently connect partners with the right opportunities, experts and knowledge, firms can begin to mitigate many of the obstacles that stand in the way of contributors’ getting more involved in cross-practice or cross-geography collaboration.  For example, a client service leader (CSL) might hesitate to bring untested colleagues onto the account team because he’s skeptical of their work quality or responsiveness.  The best IT platform will allow the CSL not only to see their self-proclaimed expertise areas, but also to vet their qualifications himself by reading their responses to others’ queries, examples of work products they’ve posted, etc.  Excellent collaborative tech platforms massively speed up the process of finding the right expert, help up-and-comers promote their ability to add value, and “democratize” access to the firm’s knowledge (possibly overcoming some of the inequities that other researchers have found – ask me for references if you’re interested).

Obviously, technology itself is not a silver bullet; without supportive leadership, some degree of culture change, and close alignment with other areas like the performance management system, it will simply fizzle out.  But a growing number of PSFs have successfully implemented internal IT systems that lower the costs and increase the benefits of collaboration by mimicking the best parts of popular social-networking applications.

The apparent collaboration-related benefits of such systems involve their timeliness (quick access to knowledge exactly when you need it), searchability (much better than email or most KM databases), flexibility (can be used for everything from specific RFIs for client work to advice on travel), customization (users can choose which groups to join/get updates from), uptake (more motivating to post knowledge “just in time” for a specific colleague rather than “just in case” for an unknown audience), and fun factor (can post videos, photos, etc. that advertise the firm’s offerings in a more interesting way than a white paper; can use for social purposes / personal interest groups that help to build interpersonal familiarity & trust), among others.  Am I missing some critical benefits?

The biggest risk seems to be that a firm invests heavily but nobody uses it –but I’m researching some case studies to identify best practices to increase adoption.  Other risks (client confidentiality, security, etc.) are important but seem manageable.  What risks/ downsides am I missing?

Do you use a collaborative technology platform in your firm?  Do you have specific examples/anecdotes about using it to find experts, research the firm’s offerings, conduct business, manage distributed teams, or other collaboration-related activities?  What problems have you experienced?  If your firm offers a platform and you don’t use it, why not? 

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on . And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.

Cultivate Relationships with High-Profile Partners

Collaboration can feel like a risky gambit: it requires up-front investment but the rewards only flow in over time.   Our research has turned up ways to speed up the payback period for collaboration:  Certain strategies can lower professionals’ perceived costs of collaboration and help them to reap more benefits sooner.  This post focuses on people who have yet to build their own reputation inside their firm – perhaps, newly elevated partners or lateral hires.  How can they use collaboration more strategically to increase their personal benefits from collaboration while reducing costs?

One strategy, for example, is to cultivate relationships with high-profile partners who can bring you onto collaborative projects with prestigious clients, knowing that the higher the status of their network the more influence those people have on others’ perceptions.  Get yourself on the radar of partners who can benefit from your expertise and help you build your capabilities and your revenues.  How?

  1. Target specific clients and their relationship partner. Chris, a partner in the New York office of a global law firm uses this tactic:  From discussions with colleagues or articles in the legal press, she gleans ideas for how her expertise in data privacy might be used more broadly in a corporate client’s strategy.  She then researches companies that her firm already serves, and writes a one-page memo to the account manager client relationship partner outlining what she can offer specifically to that partner’s client and how her expertise solves a particular problem.  Chris admits that the effort takes time, and not all of her colleagues are receptive to what they see as self-promotion. But some are extremely grateful, and enough of them welcome the offer that the tactic has so far resulted in multiple joint pitches for new work, and a couple of ongoing relationships with partners.
  2. Respond to RFIs. Here’s the idea from one partner:  “We have internal system called Global Request that people can use when they have an opportunity or client question.  To get input from others, he can write a specific request to a subgroup or the whole firm.  Our firm has thousands of professionals, and several hundred partners.  If you send to all partners, then you get 3-4 responses on average.  If you can an answer which is well articulated, then next time you have this topic, you go directly to them, which is a benefit for both of you. But unless you have provided feedback and insights on 20-30 global requests, you aren’t likely to see benefits in terms of work referrals. I pushed myself to try to answer as many queries as possible — whenever I had anything to add, I tried to share it or at least refer them to someone.  I pushed myself more than just when it was convenient.  I got an amazing response to my inputs, and it resulted in getting called to help on a specific proposals, presentations, etc.”
  3. Initiate the relationship. Another way to work with influential colleagues is to invite them onto your own client projects. Kevin, a veteran consulting partner, transferred from a boutique telecommunications firm to a generalist firm so he could apply his operations expertise to a wider array of clients. Soon after joining the new firm, Kevin identified three partners who were widely seen as prime players in other practice groups.  He invited each to lunch, but before dining spent hours conducting due diligence – studying their published papers, reading up on their clients, and talking to partners in his own practice who’d worked with them.  Within his first year, Kevin found an opening to hold joint meetings at his client with each of those partners; one developed into a small but promising stream of work. The three partners grew to appreciate Kevin’ deep expertise and client-handling skills.  And they learned of his long-term intention to stay at the firm and build a thriving business.  Over time, those partners began telling others of their impressions of him, and his prospects began to develop for work on others’ clients across a range of industries. The initial trick, Kevin explained, was for him to learn enough of others’ domain expertise to be able to identify specific opportunities for them in his own clients and credibly start discussions about those opportunities.

Do you have other suggestions for how junior partners, lateral hires, service partners, or anyone who needs to build their internal reputation can cultivate relationships with high-profile partners?

As ever in this Idea Space, please feel free to leave your comments below.  If you have an especially sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share  (perhaps one that I could disguise and use in the book, or at least learn from), then please email me directly on

Project launch / team kick-off

One part of the “How collaboration helps the firm recruit, retain, and grow the right people” chapter focuses on the link between collaboration and keeping your talent motivated and engaged.

Based on our surveys, we have lots of examples of benefits such as “the camaraderie that comes with working as a group” and “learning more about nuances of other colleagues’ business lines.”  But it’s only excellent collaboration that ensures these good outcomes.  If partners simply pull together a team, and divvy up work in a “divide and conquer” way the advantages are far from certain.  Firm leaders have the responsibility of ensuring their partners are equipped and willing to lead their collaborative efforts in ways that generate the maximum returns.

One factor that helps to ensure that team members are motivated and able to contribute optimally to an initiative is a firm-wide approach for effective project launches.  McKinsey, for example, has a format where a leader is expected to kick off every new project by briefing the team on the client and the project objectives, and then clearly discussing how each person’s piece fits into the bigger picture.  Teams also spend some time getting to know each other’s work styles, strengths, and development areas.   This step—which can take as little as a half hour or even less if the team is familiar with each other –is essential for aligning members’ goals, helping them know where to turn with questions (which avoids the leader becoming the sole-source bottleneck), and allowing them to see why their “piece” matters.

Does your firm have an effective team launch process?  How do you get busy team leaders to actually do it? 

One idea that was floated at a recent partner conference is to withhold the team’s expense code till they document their project launch.  Wouldn’t this cause an uproar, or is the kind of “teeth” you need to jump-start this process (at least till it becomes a cultural expectation)?

Please comment below — I bet the community would benefit from your wisdom, if you’re willing to share–or email me directly.