Harness the power of deep collaboration to spark your greatest innovations

Aeri Shan
8 min readFeb 13, 2021


I want to share a secret. CEOs, founders, and organizational leaders do not know more than their employees. Employees almost always know this, but those in leadership positions too easily become blind to this simple fact.

Nearly all of us have been or are in work situations which suffer from the lingering effects of a hierarchical and patriarchal view of organizational structure. It’s a view that puts the CEO or Executive Director at the top literally and figuratively and in extreme cases creates a closed set of hierarchies all the way down to the most junior person. There can be no way for those “at the bottom” to do anything outside the narrow parameters of their role despite the fact that “at the bottom” is often where the rubber meets the road and the company meets it’s customers. You may have been taught that such compartmentalization is somehow more efficient but this is demonstrably not true and can be an unnecessary obstacle to innovation.

Suppose that person is tasked solely with sorting incoming mail. Or maybe it’s greeting customers in an office. It often would be completely unacceptable for that person to have a task- or problem-related conversation with anyone other than their immediate manager, and I’ve known managers who would enforce this. There is no opportunity for that junior employee’s perspective to be heard even though it can be a critically important one. It’s not at all unlikely that they may have noticed important things — perhaps they’ve observed that a disproportionate amount of mail is coming in from a certain demographic that is being underserved by the company’s marketing campaign. Maybe a junior employee is tasked with contacting customers to pursue payment and discovers that customers want to pay but experience problems with the system. Would you want that problem to slowly wind it’s way up a chain of command? This person has a connection with customers that leadership lacks. It’s a perspective, and I’ve have observed this more times than I can count, that is often crucial to their success by virtue of it’s proximity to the customer.

The day-to-day working experience of an organization’s leader is often necessarily limited and it’s ridiculous to assume that that leader has worked their way up through the ranks and knows (and retains knowledge of) every role. Yet, and I will confess to making this mistake myself, leaders often assume they have useful things to say about everything — the corollary of which is that they all to often feel comfortable ignoring anything.

I regularly receive a certain guitar manufacturer’s magazine and a great deal of it is excessively laudatory about their founder. They make great guitars, to be sure. But what’s the purpose of that marketing narrative? I strongly suspect it’s primary aim is to make that founder feel good and useful. Recently they described how he could go on the shop floor and easily spot imperfections others had missed, correcting these errors as the old master of all of them. He still knows with perfection, they say, every step in the guitar building process. No doubt this founder’s knowledge is tremendous and his experience — of the overall picture — is extremely important in guiding organizational function (or guitar manufacturing). But to assume that one is still more expert at something than the person who does it now day in and day out, is hubris and frankly ineffective. And as a customer thinking the company depends on a single person is concerning. I want to know that all it’s employees are working together to produce guitars I will love.

Your role as a leader is to use your knowledge and experience to guide the knowledge and experience of people who do the “actual work” because while they have a great close-up view while you hopefully understand how all the pieces fit together. Often you will understand and be the protector of your organization’s mission or business objectives. You are (and I’ll get to this) the aligner. You may know that a certain wood is endangered so you can tell the designers who can design guitars to best use wood responsibly because this ideal is part of your brand. In turn the builders can work out manufacturing processes that reduce wasting that precious wood. Your marketing team needs to know to listen to all this and to your customers in order to understand how to best tell that story.

This is the nexus of collaboration and teamwork and the driver of true leadership. In terms of perspective, the pyramid is inverted — those at the “top” have the broadest view while those at the “bottom” have the most specific view and the most expertise within their specialities. It may feel good to some people to be in command, making rapid fire decisions and telling everyone what to do. But to achieve optimal results when working toward your organization’s goals, you are far better off /not/ telling your employees what to do or how to do it, but in successfully framing your goals so that all work is aligned.

Suppose a guitar manufacturer wants to market to a particular audience. They want to produce instruments that are especially easy to play. In some organizations I’ve worked for this would be viewed as strictly a marketing problem — how to somehow make people believe the square peg fits into the round whole they’ve created. This view is shockingly common. But to me marketing is as also a product problem which is also an engineering problem — it’s a question of first understanding how to align to customer’s needs at the product or functional level, which also means aligning to customer needs at the engineering, manufacturing, or program level. Rather than compartmentalizing these functions it’s that alignment that is most efficient — everyone is on the same page.

So the obvious question is: How do you as a leader help build this alignment? How do you leverage the specific expertise of all your employees to serve the big-picture goals? The answer is to foster what I’ve sometimes called deep collaboration. We often talk about the importance of team-work, collaboration and cross-functionality, but we do so within organizational structures that work against that. Compounding the problem, leaders often don’t practice what they preach, commanding others to be more collaborative while they assiduously avoid listening, sometimes to the very experts they hire.

Deep collaboration is actually quite simple. Fundamentally it’s a recognition that your success does not stem from your individual actions alone and that the engine of your success is the organization’s success — this is very much a two-way street. As a manager or leader your success is a product of the people that work “for” you and therefore their success enables yours. We sometimes talk about a service mentality and that is essentially the role of a leader: to be in service of an employee’s success. An organization can get away with being successful without their employees being successful, but only for short periods in limited ways. Unsuccessful employees leave or worse, remain and are… unsuccessful.

Yet too often we evaluate success in myopic ways. Did Jane file her reports on time? Did Bob make X number of calls in a month? Who cares? Maybe Bob decided customer visits were better and met his goals that way. Many are familiar with the Objective and Key Results (OKR) framework developed by Andy Grove and popularized by companies like Google. This can be incredibly effective, but it needs the right foundation and implementation. Objectives can’t create alignment when your organization is compartmentalized. And what constitutes Key Results are often misunderstood: We fall back to the old employee-centered performance metrics. It’s important, of course, that when we manage by objective we have a data-driven mechanism for measuring results. But which results we choose to measure matter a great deal. Ask yourself, what’s the end goal? What’s the entire point of us doing all this? The customer, right? If you answered “a nice exit and millions of dollars” you are putting the cart before the horse even if a really nice cart is your own primary objective.

If organizational success is an employee’s success and if organizational success ensures customer success, then the measured results should always be customer-centric. Not did Bob makes those phone calls but were Bob’s customer interactions positive and fruitful for the customer? That might mean they purchased your product or it might just mean they moved a little farther on their customer journey. Not did someone post X times on social media, but did those social media posts result in Y engagement? It might be that some of your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are mechanical measures that you find useful indicators of work being done. But are they on their own reliable predictors of results that matter? A useful tool you should already be using is Net Promoter Score (NPS). It’s imperfect and there are various models and methods for this, but it’s an decent framing of customer satisfaction and a good example of the right kind of measurable Key Result that can help bolster organizational alignment.

When we frame things in terms of customer success we can start to put aside outmoded conceptions of employee performance as a meaningful metric. At the end of the day it doesn’t much matter how Jane or Alice did their jobs but only whether customers were successful as a result. There are obviously many moving parts and externalities to this, but I find that, taking a cue from the Toyota Method, when everything we do is pulled by the customer it helps define an organizational structure and workflow that fosters collaboration which in turn promotes innovation. If we are all working toward customer success and having our success as employees measured in those terms, it allows us to focus on our working relationships relative to common goals. Combined with objective measures this really helps avoid questions like “What does Joe even do… does he really deserve that promotion? ” and instead think in terms of “are our customers happy because of what we did?” Instead adversarial internal measures of work, we have measures of collaborative success. Throw away the view of the rock star that does that one great thing. Why would you put all your eggs in one basket? Sustainable innovation comes from collaboration. We are, as the saying goes, greater than the sum of our parts.

And innovation doesn’t come from listening to the same people day after day. It certainly doesn’t come from only listening only to yourself despite what many founders might like to believe. Innovation is driven by diversity: in ideas, in experiences, in perspectives, in people. That means the best idea your organization has ever had — the one that could define your success for years to come — could easily come from the person you dismissed as too young or too old or too… not like you. In fact it may be more likely than not that it does. Are you going to be listening when that happens or are you going to miss out?

Deep collaboration means deep listening. It means being open to hearing and understanding new ideas from anywhere and creating organizational structures that foster that. Aligning around customer-centric goals can help build collaboration which in turns drives innovation. If you take the time to listen and give others the space to speak, you may just find the spark you never knew existed.



Aeri Shan

Story-teller. Data-wrangler. Product visionary. Empath. Non-binary human.