Imagine coming back home from work, calling the family into the living room, and urging everyone to collaborate more. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Ever wondered what makes collaboration seem so natural at home but unnatural at work?

The answer: Purpose. Purpose is collaboration’s most unacknowledged determinant.  While it can be taken for granted within families, that’s not true of most organizations. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea,” pointed out Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer and aviator, who wrote The Little Prince. 

Yet, companies and executives spend endless amounts of time and money trying to foster collaboration through technology, training, and memos instead of quickly defining the problem, framing the challenges, and inspiring people to come together and tackle it.

Let’s remind ourselves of three outstanding examples of collaboration.

  • On April 14, 1970, when an oxygen-tank on Apollo 13 exploded during the third manned mission to the Moon, it seemed that the three-member crew was doomed. Upon hearing the words, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” NASA knew that it had to abort the mission and find a way of bringing the three astronauts back 200,000 miles to Earth ASAP. Individuals, teams, and groups came together, poured over data, ideated on blackboards, restrooms, and over water coolers, came up with solutions, tried to implement them, failed — and tried again until they succeeded. For two days, the goal of saving the three astronauts’ lives became everyone’s purpose.
  • On September 11, 2001, following the aerial attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the Federal Aviation Authority had to land over 5,000 planes in the US as quickly as possible before more could be hijacked — a task that had never been attempted on that scale.  Many large planes had to be landed at small airports that were equipped only with a few landing lights, controllers, and fire engines. With no rule-book to cover the circumstances, FAA employees had to disregard procedures or invent new ones. They were asked to go against the book, and they did so successfully. Not a single additional plane crashed in the US that day.
  • In November 2002, the Chinese government found that a large number of people had been afflicted with atypical pneumonia in Guangdong Province. Within seven months, an unknown virus called SARS had infected over 8,000 people in 26 countries and killed 774 of them.  With SARS threatening to become a global pandemic by March 2003, a virtual network of 11 laboratories in nine countries, led by the CDC in the US, decided to work together to identify the causes and how to combat the virus.  In less than a month, the team was able to discover the corona virus that caused SARS and complete the genetic sequencing of the pathogen.  Identifying the causes led to a better understanding of  transmission modes and enabled the development of guidelines for managing the epidemic.

Why did these three teams succeed in the face of the overwhelming odds against them?  In all three cases, a culture of trust manifested itself as people communicated — across teams in NASA’s case, across a country in the FAA’s case, and across nations in the SARS example.  Team members were driven, they moved quickly, and there was a real esprit de corps.  They could write new rules and rewrite old ones, and they dominated the situation rather than letting the institutions to which they belonged dominate them.

People were also driven by the clear definition of the goals and an overarching purpose; they could see how their collaboration would benefit a cause larger than that of any individual. Collaboration is effective only if goals are evident: What problem are we trying to solve together? What can we do to solve this collectively?  Of course, there needs to be a time-frame: By when do we have to get this done? What’s at stake if we don’t complete it in time?

The next time you want people to collaborate, ask yourself: What is the longing — the deeply felt longing — that will drive this team even if it does not already have all the tools to achieve it? What will wake up the members of the team every day and make them want to go where they are dreaming of going? When you, as a leader, can articulate that longing and inculcate purpose, you will be well on your way to fostering collaboration among the people in your organization.


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