Collaboration continues to be a buzzword among leaders. Read the “Mission and Values” statements of companies in any industry, and you will surely see a common theme centered on “Collaboration”. In support of that aim, companies continue to invest in organizational change initiatives to increase collaboration and also allocate significant budget for collaboration software such as Slack, Skype for Business, and Yammer.
Fostering greater collaboration within your team and organization sounds simple, and many executives approach it as such. I have heard leaders at both large and mid-size companies say things such as “Collaborate with your team and come up with a strategy to address declining growth” or “The adoption of Slack will enable us to collaborate both within our teams and across organizational functions.”
In practice, driving collaboration into your organization is much more difficult. While we as humans have an innate need and desire to connect and collaborate, there are barriers that impede both our desire and ability to do so within an organization.
Below, we have cataloged several ways collaboration gets short-circuited and what you can do about it.
1. Lack of Psychological Safety: True collaboration is characterized by contribution from all parties, and in order to achieve that there needs to be an environment of psychological safety so that team members can feel comfortable sharing and taking risks. Without it, there will be an unequal contribution among team members focused on the more vocal (and not necessarily most insightful) leaders. For example, in ideation or brainstorming sessions, which require new break-through ideas as opposed to incremental suggestions, it’s critical that team members feel safe taking risks and sharing even the most outlandish ideas. It’s often the most far out suggestions that drive moonshot initiatives and also start to shift people from incremental to exponential thinking. Without the presence of trust or psychological safety, opinions and suggestions will be muted from contributors who might have the best ideas. I have observed many team and leadership meetings where one person was critical of other team member’s ideas leading the person to shut down and disengage from the conversation. As a leader, it’s up to you to establish psychological safety within your team so that participation isn’t held back for fear of being criticized. To learn more about creating psychological safety, take a look at How to Be Like Google: Creating Psychological Safety within Teams.
2. Focusing on Achieving Consensus: Many leaders and organizations mistakenly conflate collaboration and consensus, assuming that you can’t have one without the other. In practice, nothing waters down an idea like ensuring consensus is achieved among a leadership or project team. While consensus (or at least tacit buy-in) may be appropriate in some instances, consensus is the death knell of breakthrough innovations and radical new ideas. Instead, assign an owner for each collaborative discussion and empower them to take the input from the collective group and activate on the idea and move it forward (this is the collaborative element). Doing so will ensure you gain the benefits of team and organizational input while creating a mechanism to drive new ideas forward. Keith Ferrazzi and Ferrazzi Greenlight transform staff meetings by focusing most of the time on Collaborative Problem Solving exercises that help leaders learn new behaviors in the context of real business issues.
3. No Accountability to Follow-Through: Lack of accountability, both to outcomes as well as to the process, is another way that collaboration can fall short within an organization. How many times have you participated in a collaboration meeting aimed at finding solutions to key strategic barriers, only to see the great ideas generated in the meeting languish in the virtual dumpster also known as PowerPoint or Excel? To prevent this from happening, be sure to assign an owner to each new idea, action, or work stream coming out of a collaborative meeting. Even better, identify dates by which each commitment will be achieved as well as define what accountability means to the group. Finally, as leaders it’s critical for us to ensure the same level of accountability for commitments made to collaborative endeavors as to other activities and goals that sit squarely within an individual’s annual goals and objectives.
4. Insufficient Motivation to Collaborate: Given the ongoing challenge of “doing more with less”, we can struggle to find the time to collaborate, especially when the area of discussion falls outside of an individual’s role and responsibilities. As such, it’s critical to establish the necessary motivation to ensure people make time to collaborate as well as ensure they are fully engaged in the process. To do so, it’s critical to establish the “why” for each collaborative team member. Many times leaders focus on the impact that a new initiative or opportunity will have for the organization overall, but motivation is complex, and top-line company growth is only one piece of the puzzle. Instead, try individualizing the “why-you-should-collaborate” value proposition for each individual participating on the team. For example, for a resource-minimizing zealot (e.g. your COO), try focusing on how the new initiative could streamline resource utilization as well as how it could eliminate bottlenecks. For a team member who is driven by the company’s purpose, focus on how new initiatives created from collaborative activities would allow the company to impact more people globally or more effectively bring its mission to life.
5. Not Involving the “Right” People: Yet another pitfall that can derail successful collaboration is a failure to involve the “right” people in the discussion. Many times, invitations to collaborative meetings are driven by role and title as opposed to what an individual can bring to the conversation. Instead, try to include diverse perspectives across the organization regardless of title as well as people with an array of complementary strengths, for example those strong in ideation themes as well as people with action-oriented strengths.
Please share your thoughts and comments on common challenges you have seen to effective team and organization-wide collaboration.
About the Author
Darren Reinke is a member of the San Diego HR Forum and founder of Group Sixty, a consulting and leadership development company focused on helping clients compete in fast growing markets through better execution of strategic growth initiatives and by enabling leaders and teams to play to their strengths.