Harnessing the value of collaboration

Working on a highly collaborative team that is producing breakthrough results sounds a little bit like business utopia, doesn't it? I'm intrigued by the untapped potential inherent in collaboration. Organizational sage Peter Senge suggests that "collaboration is vital to sustain really deep change, because without it, organizations are just overwhelmed by the forces of the status quo."

I am also suspect of this promise of transformation. Perhaps this is in part because most companies are not structured to capitalize on this approach to problem-solving and decision-making. In many organizations, departments have become singularly focused silos defaulting to a more competitive, isolated view of success. Silos encourage redundancy and sub-optimal decision-making that significantly reduces an organization's responsiveness, productivity and profitability.

Conceptually, collaboration is a process through which a group of people constructively explore their ideas to search for a solution that extends one's own limited vision. It's about respectfully sharing information, decision-making, responsibilities, learning and recognition. It's a critical ingredient to teamwork, employee engagement and generation of any real shift in what you do and how you do it. I would argue that it is both a process and a mindset of any truly learning, evolving organization.

The art of collaboration expands what's possible. It requires a more thoughtful approach that engages and empowers stakeholders. It's an invitation to make an impact rather than stand by the sidelines and be the armchair quarterback. It also requires a belief that the contribution of others will improve the outcome. This is where it can get sticky.

In theory, I think we all see the benefit of stakeholders' contributions. We open up dialogue that unearths obstacles, risks and opportunities; delivering a better vetted solution. We increase buy-in for improved adoption and execution. However, in practice, making decisions unilaterally can feel much freer, less cumbersome and more efficient. And we feel more in control of the outcome. Collaboration might take longer and require more patience on the front end of the process, but it can produce better results with more lasting impact.

Yes, andâ?Ś

In the world of improvisational comedy, "Yes, and" are the two magical words that ignite creativity. Improv doesn't shut down ideas; instead, its brilliance is in building on whatever each member of the ensemble offers. It grants participants the freedom to be expressive without judgment; it affords each person space to feel heard and respected; and when you have mutual respect, it's possible to work through any performance challenge. This is according to Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton in "Yes, And Lessons from the The Second City." In business, it focuses team members on generating ideas together that would have otherwise been sabotaged. It's an act of co-creation that fuels momentum and explores unanticipated options.

Essential ingredients

Because we naturally see problems from our own biased lens, collaboration requires us to be willing to let go of current personal and organizational "truths" in favor of a deeper, more comprehensive approach. "Business-as-usual processes will produce business-as-usual results," Senge says. Surrender the need to be right.

Here are some tips to start practicing collaboration in action:

- Focus on pressing practical problems that impact stakeholders across departments. Assess the situation, the barriers, the incentives, timeframes and desired outcomes.

- Focus on transforming relationships, and not just solving the problem at hand. True collaboration means being curious about others' perspectives and respecting them.

- Create time and space for a deeper conversation. Create an environment that is both safe to speak up and demands a level of contribution to the whole for the greater good.

- Show up. "Get out from behind the conversation and make it real," writes Susan Scott in "Fierce Conversations." Be willing to bring ideas, observations, questions, concerns and solutions to the table. Silence equals support; let your voice be heard.

- Drive for creative, sustainable results; proactive solutions; not just firefighting.

- Communicate. Don't hold your ideas prisoner. They don't have to be well formed to provide fodder for issue resolution. Often, the less crafted your idea, the less attached you are to it.

- Be willing to get out of the way. If you are in a leadership role, you can provide guidelines, best practices or direction; however, don't police it, because it will likely stifle discussion as they will wait for you to dictate the answers.

- Recognize contributions. Demonstrate that you welcome fresh ideas, constructive critiques and observations by acknowledging individuals who have the courage to contribute.

- Integrate collaboration into your meetings, project launches and one-on-one conversations. If you're not sure how, hire a facilitator to nurture an environment that will maximize participation. (Contact me for a framework.)

- Learn the art of asking open-ended questions (who, what, where, when, how, why); and really listen for the answers.

- Ask for your colleagues' opinions; ask them to help you tackle a problem in a new way. It requires a little bit of humility and vulnerability, but it produces tighter bonds and can get you unstuck.

Collaboration is a continuous, ever-evolving process. The more that team members collaborate, the more significant the working relationships become. As these relationships become more comfortable and fluid, teams are more likely to demonstrate trust and respect by sharing and discussing ideas. Ultimately, collaboration is about investing in relationships that deliver the kind of breakthrough results that otherwise are not achievable.


Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at 503-806-4361 or karen@natzel.net.

Published: Fri, Nov 27, 2015