Written by Paul Whybrow
Collaboration is certainly a word in vogue with consultants and companies alike.
When I looked it up, I found it has two very different meanings: “the action of working with someone to produce something”or alternately “traitorous cooperation with an enemy”.
From my experience I have seen a lot of the first producing fantastic results and far too much of the second creating negativity and failure.
Collaborative working is very well promoted as the magic ingredient to cut down on decades of silo mentality and to get teams working for the common good. If that is how you and your co-workers tackle collaboration, then well done and feel free to skip the next paragraph.
If that is not you, then I am sorry that you have colleagues that just don’t get it. Maybe their definition of collaboration is a one-way street. They want others to do what they want and share everything with them whilst making sure they do nothing in return, as that clearly is more powerful or leads to an easier life. To them the sharing economy and the benefits of pooling problems can mean compromise in actions and a loss of face and perception of power. Please read on as I have some tips and approaches that just might get them across the line to trying true collaboration.
Just like many of life’s important skills, success only comes with constant practice. Holding a one-day workshop on the merits of working together where everyone feels connected and empowered at the end of the day won’t achieve anything unless you are doing the daily exercise.
Collaborate or Perish is an intriguing book by William Bratton and Zachary Tumin that I read recently. It is full of practical examples of how simple collaboration and creative thinking can solve some major headaches: Massively reducing the crime rate and desperation of the homeless in Los Angeles; reinventing the arrest system in New York to save millions of dollars; and how to track and stop a mass salmonella outbreak. These are big problems, but understanding how effective collaboration made such a big difference can help us all to practice our collaborative skills and maybe, just maybe, entice some of the cynics to get on board.
If I was to summarise this approach it could be down to three simple steps.
Step one – Solve the conflict and confusion
First you need to tackle the two big enemies of collaboration which are conflict andconfusion. Confusion occurs when people are unclear about how to do something that needs resolution, and conflict is where there are distinct diverse ideas about how to do it.
In the book there is a simple table that helps guide you through this stage.
CLARIFY: Conflict is low, but confusion is high. You will need to clarify how to proceed before collaboration can begin. That could involve more analysis, tests, proofs or pilots.
LEAD: Conflict and confusion are high. Right-sizing (see below) is extremely important. If you can’t right-size your way out of this quadrant, be prepared for the long game.
JUST DO IT: Here, as everyone is in sync, you can just go ahead.
NEGOTIATE: Confusion is low, but conflict is high. You have a fundamental disagreement on what to do next. Right-sizing may not resolve all conflicts, but it will get you to the next step that everyone can agree on.
Step two – Right-size the problem
Secondly, you will want to make sure that you define why you are getting together, what problem you are solving and then say it in one sentence.
The key point is that you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. You also don’t want something so weak that success is hardly noticeable. It is about finding something that can be simply expressed and then acted on with success and acknowledgement. If you want to totally reorganise the culture of a group for example, you may have stronger success in breaking it down to separate blocks that can be led one by one, rather than just deciding to create a completely fresh culture in one big bang. It simply won’t work and could lead to more pain and pushback.
Step Three – Pass the four tests of collaboration readiness
Finally, now that you have a clearly defined problem to collaborate on which is right-sized, you can do a final test before tackling it head on.
With the Future of Work changing rapidly and the growth of agile workplaces and flatter structures, collaboration is a skill that we are all likely to want to develop and nurture whatever the role we do.
This simple framework strikes me as a good way to shape and sanity-test any collaborative team problem-solving, that will help you strike gold with high value and well acknowledged outcomes.
Written by Paul Whybrow