The Collaborative Worker is the Most Valuable Asset of the 21st Century Company: Why Knowledge Was Never Enough

by | Leadership, Teams

“This will never work!”

That is what the executive sponsor told me when I suggested creating dedicated cross-disciplinary teams that spanned across functional departments at the company.

Heavily influenced by traditionalist organizational thinking, many of this company’s leaders were skeptical about breaking apart the silos they had worked so hard to build.

The leader went on to explain, “We can’t have people dedicated to one team because there is simply too much work to do.

The problem was that there was a lot of work to do, and both quality and outcomes had been suffering at this company for quite a while. While each department operated like a mini-machine, the overall customer experience was disjointed.

We were given a few months to run a pilot experiment that few of the leaders thought would work. We formed a dedicated team of mostly junior employees and they were given a challenging problem that some of the organization’s top performers had unsuccessfully tried to solve a few times already.

A few months later, the accomplishments of the experimental team were impossible to ignore.

Not only did the group find a way to collaborate effectively with one another, but they ended up solving the problem in a creative and efficient way — for the first time ever. When asked about their success, the group pointed to the trust they had developed and the focus they had on solving a singular problem, as well as the fact that everyone brought different skills and disciplines to the table

Soon after, this ragtag-turned-rock-star team was entrusted with a high-profile opportunity as their next assignment. Before long, the company formed four other cross-discipline product teams, and over the next two years, they eventually moved all their employees into similarly structured teams.

Knowledge Isn’t Enough

In 1959, management expert Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” to describe what he saw as the most important skill set in an organization.

He later wrote:

The most valuable assets of the twentieth-century company were its production equipment. The most valuable asset of a twenty-first-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.[i]

Drucker wasn’t wrong. But he wasn’t entirely right either. As the senior leaders of the retail company came to learn, what matters most is not merely one’s ability to think, but one’s ability to communicate, solve problems, experiment, and learn together. It’s not individual productivity that matters, it’s collective performance. 

It’s not merely our knowledge that drives value, it’s our skills of collaboration.

In short, the most valuable asset of the 21st-century organization is the collaborative worker.

Collaboration Deficits Hide Risk

When Malcolm Gladwell looked at a study exploring the root cause of airline crashes, as part of the research for his book, Outliers, he discovered a fascinating insight.

The majority of crashes weren’t due to a technological error, or a breakdown in procedure.

Rather they were caused by something far more human: 

A lack of collaboration.

In Gladwell’s words, “The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication.”[ii] 

This is startling, but perhaps not shocking. You can have your processes, procedures, and policies perfectly defined, but if there’s a breakdown in interaction between humans, you will feel the consequences.

The organizations that sustain high performance in the ever-changing world we live in will be the ones that invest in a workforce driven by collaboration.

The future success of your organization will not be determined by the knowledge and expertise of individuals. The reality is that even the best and brightest employees aren’t good enough on their own.

You could have the best sales team, the most experienced marketing employees, and the smartest engineers. But if these best-in-class individuals do not communicate with each other, share knowledge, solve problems together, and collaborate on new ideas, you will never discover the full potential of your organization.

It is the collaboration between people across skill sets and departments that ultimately unlocks the flow of outcomes and the highest levels of performance.

Effective Collaboration Is the Foundation

The relationships between people in a group have always fueled the most transformative changes in organizations, communities, economies, and entire ecosystems. 

For this kind of change to continue, leaders need to empower the collaborative worker. 

Today, many organizations recognize the importance of teams and how they work together.  Particularly cross-disciplinary and cross-functional teams, where you have people with distinctly different roles, skills, and responsibilities participating in the same team, ultimately accountable, together, for the outcomes of the work they do. And they commit to giving diverse, highly-effective groups the space they need to actually do great work together.

You will know that collaboration is effective when you start seeing more innovative solutions, faster pivots in response to change, and better customer outcomes.

How can you make a true investment in collaboration?

For future-proof high performance, organizations need to cultivate and reward the skills of collaboration. And even more important? Create an environment where collaborative teams can thrive. Here are three essential principles for collaborative teams. 

  1. The team must have all of the skills they need to turn an idea into action.

Imagine you’ve been tasked with ensuring multiple boats make it from the source of a river to the sea. You wouldn’t put all of your skilled navigators together in one boat, the experienced captains in another, and everyone who knows how to build and repair sails off in yet a different boat.

It’s much more effective to have a navigator, a captain, and a skilled boat-builder working together as a crew that can tackle whatever comes their way.

It’s the same in organizations.

Form teams with diverse experience and skills so that they can effectively tackle any problem you need them to solve.

  1. The team must be in flow.

Too much work in progress — anything that has been started but not yet finished — creates fractured focus and forces teams to pay an expensive context-switching tax.  

Prevent this by setting — and honoring — work-in-progress limits. Prioritize the work, projects, or opportunities that really matter and allow your team to focus, get to “done”, and create real value before moving on to the next thing.

Read more on work-in-progress limits here.

  1. Prioritize persistent and consistent teams.

It takes significant effort and many hours to learn how to collaborate with other people, and each team’s pattern of collaboration will be unique.

That’s why splitting up teams and forming new ones for every project will kill collaboration, as the new group has to start from zero to create their unique pattern of collaboration.

A team that builds their collaboration skills together, over time, will be better equipped to spend more of their energy on doing actual work.

This is why persistent teams get more done and are generally higher performing.

The future of work is people.

One of the insidious things that keep organizations from creating lasting culture change is an obsession with “the future”, as in, what will happen next, when it will happen, and the trending technology that will make it so.

I can’t tell you what will happen next. But I can tell you exactly how the next problems and opportunities of the future will be solved: 

People collaborating together.

In the future world of work, as in the past world of work, human beings will work together to solve complex problems that matter to people. This is why we must invest in designing organizations and prioritizing work in ways that enable people to do work how they work best, with focus and collaboration.

The future of work is people — and the most valuable asset of any twenty-first-century organization is the collaborative worker. 

As a leader, you can be confident that no matter what change is on the horizon, your organization will be better positioned to thrive when you invest in people working better, together.

[i] Peter Drucker, Management Challenges for the 21st Century (London: Routledge, 2012), 116.

[ii]Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2008), 184

Want to get pragmatic about empowering collaboration in your organization? Check out my new book, Real Flow: Break the Burnout Cycle and Unlock High Performance in the New World of Work, available here.


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