Think back to a meeting when you had a handful of people gathered around a whiteboard and one person is drawing and talking, explaining what she means. In mid-flight, a colleague grabs another pen and adds to the drawing, suggesting another perspective. A new train of thought emerges. Everyone pitches in and the conversation is electric with ideas and with each word, progress is made toward their common objective. This is a typical example of collaboration at work.
You might be one of those executives who might intercept and say, “Excuse me, I never heard this term used in our company. We have coordination and cooperation extensively used and practiced. Is there anything more in collaboration?”
Yes, there are a whole heap of differences.
In cooperative endeavours, the focus is primarily on sharing information and expertise. In this type of relationship, participants are loosely connected, so their contribution to the relationship is low. Each participant remains completely independent from the others. There are only minor changes in how each participant does business, but they have the advantage of learning from others and being able to modify the way they work.
In coordinated approaches, the parties realise the need to work together to meet a set goal. This process requires participants to tightly align resources and effort. Although involved in set joint policies and programmes, organisations retain control over their own operations.
Coordination requires a higher level of contribution and commitment, as well as stronger relationships between participants.
Collaboration is characterised by strong and highly interdependent relationships. Participants realise that to achieve outcomes they have to agree to radically alter the way that they think, behave and operate. Collaboration is not about making adjustments at the periphery; it is about systems change and as such, participants are involved in a high-risk, high-stakes and volatile environment that can produce results significantly different from those originally intended.
In the business world today, we face an entirely new environment for innovation and getting things done. The days of the lone genius quietly toiling away in pursuit of that specticular success in his organisation are all but over. We are now in the days of asking and listening to our customers and working with them in our innovation cycles.
And, innovation demands collaboration. So does sales, production, finance and administration. In the past, we could focus on a single task in an assembly-line fashion, handing our completed activity to the next person who would in turn do the same, until the job was finished.
Now, the jobs change fast, requiring learning new skills rather than merely repeating the old. We have to seek out people who have other pieces of the puzzle and work with them to tackle increasingly complex issues at a much faster pace.
Today, we all need to be collaboration superstars. The trouble is, collaboration is a skill and set of practices we are rarely taught. It’s something we learn on the job in a hit-or-miss fashion. Some people are naturals at it, but most of us are clueless. Our challenge doesn’t stop there.
An organisation’s ability to support collaboration is highly dependent on its own organisational culture. Some cultures foster collaboration while others stop it dead in its tracks.
How do we get more collaboration in the workplace? To do so, we need to understand the necessary conditions that will result in collaboration occurring. There are two conditions that are necessary for collaboration.
First, collaboration can only be expected when efforts are focused on clear, high-stakes issues. We cannot expect people to collaborate on trivial matters. If team members are told to collaborate on simple issues, they will quickly become frustrated. This often happens when a task force or committee is organised to address a simple matter.
The second condition is the existence of good interpersonal relations between the people collaborating. For collaboration to occur, the team must feel comfortable with each other. They must be able to work closely together and trust each other. This level of trust only comes with good interpersonal relations among the parties.
Trust must be established first and then collaboration is possible. If there is a poor relationship and no trust, people will quickly revert to a competitive, self-serving approach to any problem.
It’s tough to keep everyone motivated and collaborating on your team every hour of every day. Here are seven essential rules to help you along the way.
If you’re not communicating with your team, then you’re not collaborating. Open and continuous discussion between team members can open the door to new ideas and concepts that would otherwise be left unturned. Communication is not limited to long emails or meetings— instant messaging and group messaging services are a great way to keep communication constant and passive.
Are your team members or clients encouraged to share their ideas? Sometimes, your team or customers are not sure if their ideas will be deemed productive — let anyone working with you know his/her ideas are always welcome and collaboration is one of your principles in your company. A good exercise is to encourage ideas at different stages in a project, to make sure it’s ways headed in the right direction.
If you have opened up the door to ideas from your team, clients, or customers, be sure to value that opinion. Not all ideas are going to be gems, but by showing that you value other people’s opinions, you’re allowing a constant stream of collaboration within your organisation that will be worth it in the end. A simple ‘thank you for your ideas’ is sufficient and allows flexibility when it comes down to making an important decision.
It’s hard making a big decision on your own. It’s normal to rely on someone else to help you make a decision, but it is even easier to make those decisions in a group. Even though it’s not possible to make every decision in your company as a group, by allowing some minor decisions or details to be made as a group, you’re showing your team members that you value their opinion and you may increase collaboration as a result.
The magic number has enough people to develop great ideas, but not so many that it’s hard to keep up with all those ideas. If you find the magic number, you’ll introduce a whole new level of collaboration within your team.
Young and experienced
Try and open up collaboration to as many different age groups as you can. Your team members in their 20s aren’t smarter than your team members in their 30s and vice versa. Every age group has a different level of knowledge and experience, so don’t pick one group over the other when communicating or collaborating.
The boss factor
If you’re a senior manager or ‘the boss’, you may consider sitting out a few conversations and watch from the sidelines. By keeping your voice out of the start of a conversation, your team members may feel free to continue exploring their ideas without feeling the wrath of your power.
If you get involved in the conversation too early, you may stump the growth of great ideas; by letting the seeds grow on their own, you’re able to jump in at harvest time and reap the rewards (or destroy the crop if need be).
Productive collaboration is not about endless meetings but opportunities for people to come together to work on something: Creating, progressing, building. Importantly, we differentiate collaboration from other interactions that people have with colleagues in a work settling.
Often organisations mistake interactions such as coordination (“I’m handing this over to you”) or cooperation (“I’m helping you out”) and communication (“I’m keeping you up to date”) with true collaboration. The very act of collaboration often gleans new information or insights that aid the team in their journey towards reaching their common goal.
(The writer, a corporate director with over 25 years’ senior managerial experience, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)