Collaboration is the buzz word of the 21st century and for good reason. Today employees work on all kinds of teams and cross functional groups to help firms remain agile and productive in response to market change and global business complexity. This basic fact of work-life places the necessity to build a culture of collaboration at the forefront of work.
Still, to produce a culture of collaboration we need to begin with new ways of thinking about collaborative leadership and as a result, employ new methods to support collective success.
Firstly, consider that collaboration is fundamentally a group activity. As such, creating a culture of collaboration does not arise from implementing individual-leadership programs only. Certainly individual leadership is helpful and supports collaboration to emerge, but unfortunately a group of strong individual leaders does not magically result in collaboration.
This is the primary challenge to creating a culture of collaboration. It happens at the group level only. When groups come together to work, they relate by communicating, feeling, coordinating activities and experiencing both explicit and implicit challenges. These dynamic interactions are generated by the group and through the group. Yet, they remain hidden from group itself. The group simply can’t see what they are producing, because they are in it, creating it from moment to moment.
Haven’t you experienced this? You reflect on a meeting you had, left wondering “what the hell actually happened?” You reflect how you felt, what you saw, what was said but you lose sight of what occurred. You are simply left with questions and feeling of productive meeting or left drained and withdrawn with a sense of “the same old thing”.
Just like individuals grow from leadership development coaching to see blind spots, groups similarly need facilitation and coaching when they actually engage in work.
To enable a culture of collaboration at work requires a new approach. Here are 7 steps to start the journey toward the destination:
- Begin by recognizing that collaboration only happens at the group and team level, when groups come together to work.
- To guide groups to collaborate, use trained facilitators whose role is to challenge the group to step out and engage each other directly and honestly, coaching the group to build the collaboration capability in the work-place.
- Spend the time necessary to meet regularly face-to-face to build the group muscle for continued group collaboration in the act of actually engaging in work, rather than attempting team leadership retreats that take groups away from learning to actually work together. Offsite team retreats unfortunately remove teams from learning to collaborate when it counts, in office conference rooms and corridors.
- Identify and refine group practices such as ‘check-in’ and ‘check-out’ processes, reading chronologies of past meetings, that help to establish a “field of relationship” over time with specific cultural norms meant to optimize discourse, cooperation and most importantly learning.
- Encourage real conversations, not your typical “being the devil’s advocate… blah… blah… blah” instead prompt groups take responsibility for opinions, thoughts and actions.
- Remove the use of qualifiers and insincere business jargon that’s unclear. Ask for simple strait forward communication where clear requests are made and ideas and opinions are genuinely owned.
- Focus efforts on helping teams cut away what is not relevant and not necessary to the task. This means supporting groups to be able and willing to draw boundaries and limits. Often determining what is relevant and not relevant spurs “conscious conflict” that opens deliberation and the intensity needed to enter true collaboration. Collaboration never emerges sitting on your laurels.
When you arrive at this destination of collaborative culture what you find is this:
Groups and teams demonstrate flexibility. Participants take on different social roles to actively adapt to challenges in the moment, irrespective of seniority, authority or place. Emotions are expressed openly that lead to collaborative conflict. At this destination new ideas emerge, where greater cooperation and learning is ignited. Allowing teams to develop the capability to cut away unproductive work and focus on the essentials excelling at the tasks set for themselves. Overtime, strong group relatedness helps tackle business challenges, not perfectly or seamlessly, but collaboratively.
At the end, building a culture of collaboration can make work more meaningful, productive and mostly enjoyable, leading to organizations that are more resilient and able to consistently adapt to market change. Yet, make no mistake; the journey requires effort, consistency, diligence, courage, commitment, conscious effort and a helpful guide along the way.