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book excerpt

This is an edited excerpt printed with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues by Jake Breeden. Copyright © 2013.

Seven Steps to Make Your Collaboration Accountable

To lead more accountable collaboration, you'll need to seek out lazy collaboration by default and eliminate it. Then ruthlessly destroy the teams that exist without a clear purpose and the meetings that happen without an important point. Finally, design new approaches to collaboration on an as-needed, just-in-time basis.

1. Audit to Eliminate Automatic Collaboration

Fish school together in a "bait ball" to avoid a predator because lonely fish are easier for sharks to snag. In the same way, workers cluster around an idea to avoid the risk of standing out. As a leader, look for the signs that people are working together as a way to validate their thinking.

Innovation and productivity need different people making real progress on different pages. Being on the same page is overrated. You'll know necessary collaboration when you see a team with a clear achievable purpose, a plan to disband when the mission is achieved, and you know what each person on the team has committed to deliver.

2. Make Teams Temporary

In 1963, Marvel Comics created its first superhero collaboration, The Avengers. The popular franchise swept the box office in May 2012 with Joss Whedon's The Avengers, bringing together Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, and Hawkeye to thwart an evil plot to destroy Earth. This motley crew struggles to gel at first, but eventually their common purpose overcomes resistance and they work together to save the planet from certain doom.

The most important lesson from The Avengers is not to form teams of cantankerous misfits who don't really like each other. The point is: assemble reluctantly. Collaborate only when the danger from not collaborating is clear and present. The team only joins up when they must tackle a problem or an enemy so great that no single hero can get it done on their own. When they eventually save the world, they tighten up any loose ends, put their metaphorical stamp on it, and scatter back to their homes around the globe. They don't call to check in, they don't plan an annual meeting, and they mostly hope never to see each other again.

Teams at work should consider this approach. Assemble with the end in mind and pick an expiration target based on achieving the team's goal. A group of people who report to the same manager or who share a job title are not, by this definition, a team. Real teams have real purpose, and leaders clearly and regularly state the purpose. At checkpoints leaders should ask: What was our original purpose? Does that purpose still make sense? If not, how should we change? Why should we continue as a team? As long as the answers reflect the original purpose of the team, the assembly remains intact. If the team is no longer serving the purpose, it is time to disband.

3. Let Underperformers Sink or Swim

Liz and David work in business development for a consultancy based in Boston. Liz works remotely from Indiana, while her East Coast counterpart, David, sits at headquarters and has a reputation for only stepping it up when a senior leader has his or her eye on a project. This infuriates Liz, as she is not only incredibly productive from her home office, but often has to step in for David when he doesn't deliver on time, which is most of the time.

If she ever wants anything to change, she has to face the potential discomfort of not just calling David out on his shortcomings. She must let him fail. Every time Liz intervenes, she simply reinforces the fact that he doesn't actually need to do anything that he doesn't feel like doing.

I am in no way suggesting you do not set your team up for success, but it is a leader's duty to hold individuals accountable, no matter what. Allowing someone to feel the pain of letting you or the team down is healthy. Either the slacker learns that he must finally step up – or a public display of his shortcomings forces change.

4. Stay Aligned with the Bigger Picture

Leaders must not only be accountable and hold others accountable, but must hold team purpose accountable to company mission and direction.

This is not as easy as it sounds, and leaders must be vigilant in constant assessment of team purpose. Leaders must not align their own identity or purpose with the purpose of a team; if teams are meant to be disassembled when the goal is met, they must be just as willing to disband or change direction when strategy calls for it.

5. Own Your Results

"Do what you say you are going to do, when you say you are going to do it." This might seem like a gimme, but in an environment of auto-collaboration, you'd be surprised at how often the basic concept of individual accountability gets swept under the rug of the "team."

If teams are created with a purpose and leaders are vigilantes for unnecessary components, however, individuals should never have any doubt what they are expected to do and when and how they are expected to deliver it. Being a leader or a member of a team should link directly to outcomes and this is when you get to flex your "getting things done" muscle.

Stuff happens. You miss the mark. Being accountable to the team means not just delivering results, but forcing yourself to face and endure the pain of not doing what you were supposed to do. What happens when you don't deliver is just as important as the other 99 per cent of the time when you do. Being accountable means owning all results, not just the good ones.

6. Hunker Down

People sometimes confuse meetings with leadership. They think that individual contributors hunker down and knock things off the list, but once you get promoted to a certain level of leadership, you run meetings and inspire others to "do the work." Everyone needs to hunker down, no matter how big your job is. Former GE CEO Jack Welch would spend an hour each day in what he called, "looking out the window time." He knew if he didn't protect that hour for thoughtfulness, for hunkering down and focusing, he would spend his entire day in meetings. Even if it's only an hour, protecting your time in order to get things done is the best way to model accountable collaboration.

How you hunker down is up to you. You might need to work from home one day a week. You might need to block the first hour of your day to focus on how you plan to meet your goals. Or reconsider the arrangement of the office and how much face time you give to the organization.

7. Unplug

Even if you turn the collaboration equation upside down and focus on being "alone by default," it's still easy to trick yourself into believing you're alone when you're really not. If you are working with your smartphone next to your laptop, with your instant messenger client on and e-mail notifications popping up at regular intervals, then you may be physically alone, but you haven't unplugged. The autonomy that comes from producing without constant feedback or validation – that's the autonomy that's needed in order to do your best work.

As a manager, you might need to let your direct reports take a day of solitude to finish a project, no matter how much you wish they would stay on e-mail when they work from home. Allowing your team to unplug demonstrates your trust in them and your respect for their autonomy.


People rise or fall to meet the expectations you have of them. Teams must exist for a purpose, and leaders must hold themselves and their team to the highest expectations. I don't advise you to collaborate less because other people don't need you, and I don't suggest you work alone because your team just isn't that helpful. I push for rare and special collaboration because the truth is that you, alone, are capable of much, much more than you might expect.