If You Want People To Collaborate – Put Them Next To Each Other!

collaboration“Change is the only constant” is a mantra that has been engrained in almost every professional I have met. However, when you ask a leader how to help employees change, the response is often pin drop silence, but after some time, people often refer to the tested ‘carrot or stick’ approach. Reward the people that change and ignore or kick out the people that don’t. Philip Kotler, the change management guru, famously stated that only 30% of all change initiatives succeed. Few betting men would take these odds…

Almost all change initiatives require people to alter their behaviors. Taking action is the most difficult as we all know from our experience in trying to lose weight, exercise regularly, influence our teenagers to clean their rooms or even change the shopping habits of our spouse. Research into people trying to quit smoking, shows that only 17% are successful and never smoke again. And to prove that old habits die hard: even if people are confronted with a major physical crisis (e.g. a heart attack) less than one out of two are able to kick the habit.

We are creatures of habit. It gives us comfort, confidence and much needed stability to make sense of this fast changing world. Two books I recently read have helped me become better in advising companies on how to change behaviors. The most recent book “The Power of Habit” is written by New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg. He helps you understand how habits work and how you can change them, not only at an individual level but also on an organizational and societal level. So far, it is Amazon’s book of the year, so check it out.

However, my current favorite read is “Influencer: The Power To Change Anything” from Kerry Patterson. In this Patterson shares a very simple model on how you can influence behavior. Firstly. Patterson distinguishes two components that stop people from changing. They either don’t want it (motivation) or they don’t know how to (ability). Through powerful real life examples, Patterson helps you understand how you can influence behavior on a personal, social and structural level.


My personal favorite insight is the impact of distance on collaboration and where by changing the environment in which people operate you ‘force’ them to change their behavior. Bell Labs was interested in understanding what was the best predictor for scientist to work effectively and collectively, smash ideas together and build on each others concepts. The answer? Distance. Scientist who worked next to each other where 3 times more likely to discuss technical topics that lead to collaboration versus scientists sitting only 30 feet from one another. With a distance of only 90 feet, the collaboration dropped to levels similar as if they were working several miles away.

Many clients often complain about different functions within the company that don’t work well enough together. Using Patterson’s example I always advise them to make people, who need to accomplish something together, simply sit together. Companies like P&G and Unilever have taken this concept even further by making their cross-functional teams sit at their client premises. If you want to change behavior, don’t forget to think about changing your physical environment.

– Paul Keijzer


One thought on “If You Want People To Collaborate – Put Them Next To Each Other!

  1. I can personally attest to the success of moving people together! I temper this, though, with the consideration that a well-managed virtual team can be very successful at collaborating together – they just need the means to do it.

    In an organization that I previously worked for, there were two positions that served large, institutional clients on a day-to-day basis. One position was a client administrator – the person on the front line with a client dealing with the daily operations of managing that client’s needs, including relationship management. The second position was that of a processor – the person who was responsible for the daily transactional needs of the client.

    For years, these two positions lived apart (usually in separate buildings). Collaboration was low, as was morale among the processing unit. Though these two positions served the same purpose – to meet the clients’ daily needs – they couldn’t have been further apart in their means to achieve that common goal.

    Finally, the suggestion bubbled up to senior management to combine these two areas and encourage more collaboration. While I don’t have hard and fast data to demonstrate the impact of this change, I can tell you that I witnessed much higher levels of engagement from both positions, higher levels of collaboration that led to many changes in workflows that better supported the clients, and a more strategic aspect to the daily operations of the organization.

    While the change was resisted at first by both sides (and very strongly, I might add), I was a change agent for this as I saw the potential for this opportunity to benefit both the internal positions and the external client. All it took was just 2-3 of us to set the bar in terms of collaboration, and the tide turned within 6 months of the transition. Still one of the best organizational moves I have been part of!

    By Scott Tarlo

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