Prioritizing Team Collaboration Pays Off for the Business. Just ask Apple

Prioritizing Team Collaboration Pays Off for the Business. Just ask Apple

UC Berkeley management professor Morten T. Hansen wrote a wonderful book in 2009 on collaboration across business—aptly titled “Collaboration”—that we keep handy. In one section, he tells the “grand collaboration” success story of how Apple’s iPod came into being.

The iPod, as it turns out, was actually the product of a “shrewd combination of many existing pieces” of technology rather than a “marvelous technological revolution.” The Apple hardware team integrated technologies from outside Apple and worked across several internal company units to create the portable music player, Hansen notes, citing “The Perfect Thing,” a book on the iPod by Steven Levy.

The collaborative effort was literally worth billions. By 2011, more than 300 million iPods had been sold worldwide, with U.S. market share over 70 percent, according to Apple CEO Tim Cook. 

The iPod almost seems unimpressive now—especially in comparison to the latest technological advances like artificial intelligence. But its innovation story is still relevant because it illustrates the potential value of collaboration, and because collaboration is actually even more important today for business success.

Yes, even more important. Fascinating research by Northwestern University business strategy professor Benjamin Jones shows that the need for collaboration grows as skills become more specialized. “Over time, this is an ongoing, never-ending phenomenon of increased specialization, which is ever increasing the demand for collaboration,” Jones said.

A clear takeaway is that organizations should consider making effective collaboration a top business priority moving forward. Some already are. Research by the MIT Sloan Management Review finds “that a focus on collaboration—both within organizations and with external partners and stakeholders—is central to how digitally advanced companies create business value and establish competitive advantage.”

Improving Collaboration

Back in 2012, a Salesforce study found that a whopping 86 percent of employees and executives cited “lack of collaboration or ineffective communication” as a cause of workplace failures. Additionally, 97 percent believed that “a lack of alignment within a team directly impacts the outcome of a task or project.”

Fortunately, we have seen the development and proliferation of better collaboration tools. Slack, for instance, founded in 2009, the same year that Hansen’s book was published, today is found in many workplaces—it reported earlier this year surpassing 10 million daily active users, up from 4 million in 2016. It and similar tools have helped improve the mechanics of workplace collaboration, but even with them, collaboration problems regularly contribute to failures. Examples of problems include failing to define an overall purpose, unclear individual roles, ineffective leadership and interpersonal conflicts.

We have a regular practice at the start of our team-connect process that we use with clients to help illustrate the current state of their collaboration. “On a scale of 1-10,” we ask, “how would you rate the effectiveness of your team?” Usually people answer with a rating between 5 and 8, showing there’s great room for improvement. By the end of the process, we ask the same question again. Often the self-ratings move up to an 8 or 10, with teams enjoying improved productivity and morale.

The teams we work with aren’t unusual—most teams have difficulty with collaboration. What makes them unusual is that they are actually doing something about it and getting training on how to be better team members and collaborators. More often, teams are focused on completing projects and tasks, even as team dynamics problems such as poor collaboration repeatedly contribute to the team failing to meet expectations.

Collaboration Can and Should Be Taught

Collaboration might be the most important skill of the present and future. When skilled, intelligent people are able to work together effectively and be creative, great things happen (like the iPod).

Collaboration technologies can help, but they are no substitute for actively working with teams and their individual members to be better collaborators.

To learn how Connect the Dots can help your teams lift their performance with improved collaboration, visit