The keys to collaboration

14 October, 2019

Without clarity, trust and inspiration, collaborative initiatives tend to stall or fail

With increasing complexity and rapid change, it is critical for team members to collaborate to solve difficult problems, to innovate and to learn.

Yet,  in spite of leaders crying hoarse about how important collaboration is, little progress seems to have been made. Everyone wants to unlock its massive potential, but only a few manage to actually do so. In theory, the idea is simple enough: different stakeholders work together, combining their skills and expertise, to achieve big goals. In reality, however, as many of you will agree, “reality strikes” and collaborative initiatives get bogged down by a number of challenges – self-interest, trust deficit, ambiguity around objectives and the lack of a shared purpose, to name a few.

So, this week, my message focuses on the key elements required for collaboration to succeed. How can we better leverage the power of joint effort to solve increasingly complex problems, harness new opportunities and drive transformation that keeps us relevant?

The responsibility of driving collaboration extends to team members at all levels across the organisation, not just the most senior leaders. InThere’s a Difference Between Cooperation and Collaboration, Ron Ashkenas draws on his work with hundreds of managers to identify where the problem lies:

Sometimes it starts at the top of the organization when senior leaders don’t fully synchronize their strategies and performance measures with each other. More often, however, the collaboration challenge resides with department heads, product leaders, and major initiative managers who need to get everyone on the same page – and shouldn’t wait for senior executives to force the issue for them.

Here are five key elements you need for a successful collaboration:

1. Clear, purpose-driven goals

Purpose plays a central role in driving collaboration, yet many leaders spend a majority of time pushing the technicalities – software, memos, training, meeting protocols and so on. While these, too, have their place, what collaboration demands first and foremost is a clear shared goal. What problem or target is the group aiming for? Perhaps even more importantly, why should they care? What’s at stake? This is all the more critical when things go wrong or opinion is divided and you need to take a call and remind yourself why you’re doing this.

Great leaders go beyond the mechanics and inspire team members with a common purpose, thereby creating a genuine desire to achieve the goal. That’s when collaboration flows most naturally.

2. The right stakeholders

Include and engage stakeholders who a) will be affected by the initiative and b) can create genuine value through their practices and contributions. This is critical to ensure you have the right sponsorship in place. Often, this gets missed at the start. In the Harvard Business Review article, The Collaboration Imperative, the authors suggest starting small to avoid logjams:

By including participants with opposing intentions at the outset, progress is often stalled or killed before productive momentum can build. Even when the economic benefit to all participants is clear, these types of collaborations are difficult because of the complex human and organizational issues involved.

Where trust is missing, genuine collaboration is impossible. So, in the case of long, complex initiatives, it could be better to begin with a limited group of members who are fully committed to the goal and trust each other enough to work together. As the project proceeds, the circle of participants can slowly be expanded. With a core of trust and motivation already in place, it may then be easier to inculcate these values through the group.

3. Real-time alignment

In the article mentioned above, Ron Ashkenas highlights the importance of aligning goals and resources with one other in real time. Take, for example, cross-functional projects where all departments agree to work independently on their own piece of the puzzle, assuming they will fit together in the end. However, things rarely go exactly as planned – the subsequent decisions made by each department will likely trigger adjustments for other departments, making integration impossible without joint working sessions. So, you must make it a practice to bring together all collaborators in the same room (physically or virtually) during key phases of the initiative, so the group can review progress, make adjustments and share resources.

4. Trust-building

At the heart of successful collaboration lies trust. So, how can we nurture a culture of greater trust between different groups? One way is to practice appreciate inquiry, a method that engages and inspires stakeholders. This involves shifting your worldview in a positive direction, with a focus on strengths, opportunities and successes – rather than weaknesses, problems and failures. No, this doesn’t mean putting on rose-coloured glasses; it simply means reframing scenarios as exciting and filled with potential. Appreciative inquiry boosts passion and the zest for innovation, motivating the group to set aside differences and work together towards a shared goal. Often times, especially when things are getting tough, blame games can cause serious rifts in the project. This is one approach to counter that.

Another suggestion for leaders is to demonstrate a spirit of generosity right from the start. The Collaboration Imperative gives us the example of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, formed to foster sustainability in the fashion industry. As the authors explain:

The nucleus of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition comprised a group of companies that had already demonstrated sustainability leadership in the industry. Walmart hosted the first meeting and invited the group (including several direct competitors) to tour its apparel offices and listen in as Patagonia’s founder and CEO, Yvon Chouinard, talked about sustainability to the Walmart staff. This openness was so countercultural that some invitees wondered if the offer was genuine.

5. Security safeguards

In The Collaboration Blindspot, Lisa Kwan describes a global insurance company that structured a collaboration in which the risk management team was to share its expertise with the business line groups, enabling them to respond to customers more quickly. On paper, the project looked great. But on the ground, it stalled almost immediately because the risk management team felt threatened and as if their value was being diluted. Kwan identifies this as a key reason why groups resist sharing information and authority:

All too often, groups feel threatened by such demands, which seem to represent openings for others to encroach on their territory. What if the collaboration is a sign that they’ve become less important to the company? What if they give up important resources and areas of responsibility and never get them back?

When the priority is to protect your own turf, it’s tough to be a good team player. Leaders can get around this problem by creating a sense of security among participants. Pay attention to factors like group identity and control while setting up the collaboration. How do member groups perceive themselves? Consider giving each group greater authority over areas related to its core identity. Next, think about the topics, processes and decisions handled by each group – could any of these be threatened by the planned collaboration? As Kwan points out, publicly acknowledging a group’s differentiated value and crucial contribution goes a long way towards curbing insecurity. Alternatively, you could grant the threatened group more control over another area.

If you’re looking for examples of how collaboration can transform outcomes, you’ll find several.

The Collaboration Imperative gives the example of the dairy industry in the US and how even systemic, industry-wide change can be driven with the right elements in place. It’s an important reminder, especially given the flux in our world today:

In 2007, key business leaders realized that the increasing pressure from NGOs, retailers, and consumers to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint…threatened the whole industry. In response, they began collaborating to identify inefficiencies and foster operational innovations across the value chain.

However, the collaboration faced enormous barriers. Dairy farmers saw sustainability as a code word for government regulation and increased costs. The industry had no experience or skills in addressing its carbon footprint. In addition, there was no history of voluntary collaborative action among the farmers, processors, and retailers. To the contrary, the key players saw themselves as rivals in a zero-sum competition for profits.

Despite the bleak outlook, a farmer-driven collective rose to the challenge, reframing sustainability as a core family-centric value that was ultimately “good for business” and creating a common knowledge base about carbon in the value chain. By recasting the problem as a win-win opportunity, emphasizing shared values and developing trust among key stakeholders, the US dairy industry has been able to implement operational innovations that would no doubt have been shot down in the past.

One of my personal favourites, is the almost movie-like rescue last year of 12 young boys and their football coach, trapped deep inside a flooded cave in Thailand. The world watched for two long weeks last year as teams and individuals from across the world came together to pull off what was being touted impossible – members from the Thai Navy SEALs, Australian Federal Police, US Air Force, British Cave Rescue Council, Beijing Peaceland Foundation, and Thai authorities, along with hundreds of volunteers and representatives from local agencies who carried out tasks like pumping water, setting up camp, and ferrying supplies up and down. Eventually, all 13 were successfully extracted. It took a lot of trust, real-time alignment (almost down to the minute), pooling in and borrowing of expertise, and most importantly, a fierce commitment to the purpose of rescuing every one of them.

What, in your experience, makes for effective collaboration? Remember that just asking team members to collaborate doesn’t’ work. We have to nudge, enable and create the right conditions for collaboration to thrive.


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