Building a better collaboration strategy

Create mini-cultures to make your group feel safe, valued, important and needed

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Recently, I spoke on “The Power of Collaborative Leadership” to business audiences in The United Arab Emirates, Scotland, England, The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and four states of the U.S. Audience members represented industries including engineering, manufacturing, retailing, construction, shipping, technology, energy, utilities, printing, pharmaceuticals and consulting – plus a range of government agencies.

After my programs, I asked audiences to fill out questionnaires that would give me a sense of their enthusiasm for and commitment to the idea of better collaboration as essential for corporate performance. I found plenty of enthusiasm and no end of commitment – but it soon became clear that however sincerely people WANTED more collaboration, they weren’t very sure how to GET it. The “Say-Do” gap had opened before them.

My first question asked for participants to rate on a scale of 1-to-10, the importance of greater collaboration to their organizations. Eighty-seven per cent gave ratings of 8 to 10, 13 per cent said 7 to 10, and only two of the 286 who participated gave ratings 6 to 10 or lower. Accompanying comments were equally upbeat:

“Collaboration is one of our corporate values.”

“Our focus is Working Together to Make it Happen.”

“We have a One Team motto.”

Those responses told me that my audiences had already faced up to the complex, ever-shifting ocean of change that characterizes today’s corporate world, and that they had now largely agreed that the untapped potential of collective brainpower across the organization was an essential ingredient for greater success in the future. So far so good . . .

But then, in response to my next question about implementation, uncertainty and skepticism began to surface:

“Collaboration is the current buzz word,” one manager wrote, “but I’m not convinced our leaders really believe in it.”

“Top management is fully aware of the importance of collaboration, but change in that direction never seems to happen.”

“Leadership keeps saying it wants, needs, and values collaboration. But what are they actually doing about it?”

“They talk up collaboration, but I’m not seeing it being modeled by any of our leaders.”

The basic components of a successful collaborative culture, I always tell my audiences, are: (1) transparent communication across the entire organization, (2) the development of cross-functional teams, (3) collaboration strategies that involve customers, (4) recognizing and rewarding collaborative successes, (5) designing collaborative work spaces, (6) creating training programs aimed at helping leaders implement collaboration.

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When asked to rate and then comment on how these six components actually affected collaboration strategy in their own organizations, answers were even more discouraging:

1) Transparent Communication, the first component, received a rating of only 6.5-out-of-10; and also attracted some noticeably unhappy comment:

“A lot of news seems to ‘improve’ before it reaches employees.”

“There is obvious modification as bad news heads up the management chain. This is done to ‘lessen the blow’.”

“The lower down the organization, the better the communication. But then they have less to tell.”

“I feels like we’re only told what the company wants us to hear.”

And finally, this telling comment: “I’m flooded with ‘important’ internal emails every day – so many I don’t bother to read any of them. I don’t have time. And there are too many ‘vital’ meetings that accomplish nothing.”

2) Cross-functional teams received the highest rating among the six components – 80 per cent – yet several respondents said that cross-functional teams were only used at the senior management level, and wished that they were operational at lower levels to implement processes. And only 11 people reported that cross-functional teams were their organization’s accepted way of working in order to improve effectiveness.

3) Less than 60 per cent reported actively collaborating with customers. Those companies that did utilize feedback surveys, focus groups, and customer forums directed them primarily at external, not internal, customers. And several comments said that while their organizations tried to build their business plans around customer needs, the results were often then less positive. As one middle manager put it: “Once a year we like to punish ourselves by being told how we’re not doing such a good job with all the feedback. Obviously we’re not learning the right lessons from what customers are telling us.”

4) Only about 25 per cent of the organizations represented had any formal mechanisms in place for rewarding – or even recognizing – successful efforts at increasing collaboration. Which means a whopping 75 per cent did absolutely nothing to reward activity that they claimed was central to their corporate success!

“We give a Star Award for the best team chosen by employees worldwide,” one team manager commented, “but we need much more of this recognition at local and regional levels.”

“Very occasionally, good collaborative work will be mentioned in an internet blog. But that’s all the positive comment we ever see – pathetic when you think collaboration is supposed to be a key corporate value in this organization.”

One of the more thoughtful responses was: “Collaboration should be looked on as a reward unto itself. Even if the contribution is not formally recognized, it is still true that the most collaborative teams are more successful.”

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5) Only 50 per cent of the companies were using workplace design in support of collaboration – strategies which included shared workspaces, communal break-out areas, dining rooms, coffee stations and open-plan offices – all aimed at making it easier for employees at all levels to share thoughts, ideas, discoveries and sudden insights, whether brilliant or ridiculous.

Which meant that half the people I heard from said their companies were doing nothing to create more collaborative physical environments. A typical comment from this group: “Our set up is more conducive to reinforcing silos.”

6) The lowest score in the questionnaire, just 18 per cent, was the answer to the question: Does your organization offer training programs that teach the skills required of collaborative team members or collaborative team leaders? For 82 per cent of respondents, the answer was a resounding “no.” It was up to individuals to find this training on their own:

“They’ve made it clear that collaboration is important, but haven’t provided the tools or training to support it.”

“Collaboration is in our leadership standards, but there is nothing offered to show us how to become collaborative leaders.”

I finally understood from all of this that most of the people in my seminars (and perhaps many of you reading this column today) shared a common dilemma: Their organization’s collaboration strategies had fallen into that Say-Do gap and leadership couldn’t see how to climb back out again.

But that dilemma may be overcome by using a strategy that probably runs contrary to all the corporate philosophy you’ve ever learned: Think Small!

Regardless of the overall corporate culture, each manager, team leader, supervisor or department head can foster collaboration within the boundaries of his/her own team by creating mini-cultures that make the group feel safe, valued, important and needed. Even if the organization remains in the gap, there can be pockets of productive collaboration operating within it. And as their successes become known, those behaviours will spread to other teams until one day, with perseverance, the gap will simply disappear, and the new collaborative culture will indeed come to be recognized as a reward unto itself. And to the whole company!

Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.

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