Friday, November 28, 2014

Job #1 for Collaborative Leaders & Managers

In the first post of this series, I listed the top five reasons companies fail at collaboration. Number one on the list is that coworkers rarely develop and agree upon a sufficiently explicit definition of collaboration. For anyone interested in leading, fixing that problem is job #1.
In this post, I offer a definition that can serve as an example. If you like it, you’re welcome to adopt it as your own.
For my highly caffeinated readers: If you're curious to understand the reasons why defining collaboration is so critical for organizations, read on. But if you feel as though you already understand those reasons well enough, you might want to skip to the next section.

What’s The Problem, Anyway?

Failing to agree upon what it means to collaborate leads to cripplingly low levels of trust among coworkers (especially up and down the chain of command) and, ultimately, to worker disengagement. How does that happen?
When we tout collaboration as a company value, the core of our meaning is left implicit. We're not simply encouraging people to work together, as the derivation suggests. We want them to work well together. That one word makes all the difference, and should signal for us a huge caution sign in flashing neon letters.
In practice, there's nothing obvious about what it takes to work well together. What it means to different people is largely subjective and highly contextual. Consider, for example, how you might work with a teenager vs. a colleague vs. a Nobel Prize winning expert. Chances are those scenarios would differ significantly.
By leaving things implicit, we almost guarantee that workers will fail to live up to each other's needs and expectations. And that's a really big deal. After all, thetrust we feel toward coworkers is based in large part upon how well they live up to our expectations.
As we lose trust in peers or those “under us”, it’s not unusual to get frustrated and annoyed. But when we lose trust in our “superiors”, we disengage. Not surprisingly, the Gallup Organization continues to report alarmingly high levels of disengagement among American workers.

A Working Definition - The Secret Sauce

In our work with leaders and teams, my colleagues and I offer an explicit definition for almost every key term we use. We do this not because our definitions are absolutely “correct”, but because they enable us to communicate our meaning more effectively. As we often say at the start of any engagement, If we're not speaking a common language, we're not collaborating. In that spirit, here’s the definition you've been waiting for:
Collaboration works when all stakeholders have ownership of and alignmentaround what we're doing and how we're doing it
It is said that there’s a universe to be found in every grain of sand. For the Collaborative Operating System, this definition is that grain of sand, our unifying theory, our North Star.
In order to understand this definition fully, you’ll need a few more terms defined:
  • Ownership = the extent to which we feel or believe that something is ours
  • Alignment = the extent to which we see and understand things in the same way
  • Stakeholders = everyone who is affected by what we're doing or how we're doing it, and anyone else whose expertise we may need
Now you're nearly ready to put these definitions to the test. There's just one important caveat to keep in mind: Based upon these definitions, we can always strive to improve collaboration, but perfection is unattainable. Perhaps it's obvious, but here are the reasons and their implications:
  1. We cannot create perfect alignment between people. We can only seek to build sufficient levels of alignment. Similarly,
  2. We cannot own something exclusively and simultaneously share ownership with others. Thus, we can only seek to build sufficient levels of ownership. And finally,
  3. It's often not possible or practical to involve all the stakeholders directly, but we can remain mindful of the likely impacts of choosing to exclude certain stakeholders.
With that, you now have everything you need to “try on” this definition and to begin assessing collaboration in your own workplace.

Your Mission (should you decide to accept it...)

Here’s how to experiment with the definition. Think of any current situation where collaboration is not working as well as you'd like. It could be in the board room, among the executive leadership team, on a project team, or within any group of people who are collectively striving to produce a common outcome. Ask yourself, to what extent are we collaborating according to the definition above? More specifically, ask, to what extent are we:
  • Involving all the stakeholders?
  • Making the content of our work (the what) explicit?
  • Making the processes that we employ (the how) explicit?
  • Building alignment around what we're doing and how we're doing it?
  • Building and sharing ownership in what we're doing and how we're doing it?
By asking these questions, you are beginning to engage in the practice of collaborative leadership. And your answers will likely point you in the direction of where to focus your attention. Of course, what you do with your answers is just as important. But we'll leave that for another day.
Next time, we'll zero in on the fundamental principles of collaboration and collaborative leadership: Ownership & Alignment. Until then...
Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.
Take the COS work environment survey to assess your company.

The Foundations of Collaborative Leadership

In my previous posts, I listed some of the most common reasons companies fail to promote (and sometimes unwittingly sabotage) effective collaboration among workers.
In this post, we continue to explore what it takes to lead collaboratively.

The Goal

At its core, collaborative leadership is based upon the principles and practices that foster healthy adult relationships. That begs the question, what are healthy adult relationships? Here are the basic tenets, and for many of us, the pitfalls. In healthyadult relationships:
  • We don’t assume that we know what’s best for others
  • We don’t make demands of others; we make requests*
  • We avoid the use of rewards and threats to motivate others**
  • We feel safe to express our needs and desires openly***
  • We are free to end any relationship that no longer serves us****
Of course, most of us do not operate consistently according to these principles at work. In some settings, we might even regard this list as utopian, even counter-productive. Why is that? There are those who would say it’s because “some people simply refuse to grow up.” Although that may be true, there’s a deeper reason for the prevalence of dysfunction among working adults – a reason that ultimately offers the seeds of hope and empowerment for leaders.
(Reader: Seriously? Did he just say “empowerment for leaders”? This list takes all my power away! The guy must be on something!)

The Trap

We all share in common one early form of leadership (and followership) training – that is, the training we received as children growing up. Although parenting styles vary considerably, chances are that your parents did not follow the above guidelines with you as a child. And if you’re a parent, nor do you with your children. To do so would be to treat our kids as adults. (Of course, good parents adapt their approach to parenting as their children mature.)
Unfortunately, in the absence of effective training and support, the most natural parallel we have to leadership and management is parenting. And that’s precisely the trap that keeps us (leaders and followers alike) locked into our existing leadership paradigm.
Let’s take a closer look at the problem. As healthy parents, and before our children mature:
  • We lean upon our wisdom and experience to make decisions on behalf of our children
  • We make demands that sanction against anti-social or unsafe behavior
  • We offer rewards as a means to encourage pro-social and safe behavior; We describe consequences and impose punishments, which often appear to our children’s developing minds as threatening
  • We refrain from sharing our adult needs and desires openly, especially when those needs and desires cannot or should not be satisfied by our children
  • We do not end relationships with our children (although they do evolve)
These are normal and expected behaviors between parents and young children. Yet, referring back to our previous list, they are the very behaviors that reinforce unhealthy dynamics when practiced among working adults.
None of this is about what’s right or wrong. It’s simply about stimulus and response. When leaders and managers behave like parents, workers and teams reflexively behave like children. And when workers and teams behave like children, leaders and managers are encouraged, and often feel justified, in behaving like parents. These are not consciously chosen dynamics. When operating in these ways, we are simply running the unexamined scripts of our earliest training.

The Path Forward

Leaders and followers are equally engaged in the dance of dysfunction when it occurs. Hence, both are capable of disrupting the pattern. But it generally falls upon leaders – those who possess greater power and authority, real or imagined – to initiate and sustain positive change.
Our job in developing ourselves as collaborative leaders begins with raising our awareness around these common dynamics. As we develop awareness, unconscious reactions become conscious responses. We learn to consider, and ultimately to embrace, alternative and more effective approaches to leadership.
What are those alternative approaches? Stay tuned…
(Reader: Aw man… you’re just going to leave us hanging?)
(*) It is, however, appropriate to declare and defend our physical and emotional boundaries.
(**) Rewards: they are best established institutionally, not inter-personally;
Threats: we can’t control what others will find threatening, but we can be empathetic.
(***) Having expressed our needs or desires, we are not entitled to getting them met by others without first establishing agreements.
(****) We often don’t see ourselves as free to end work relationships, given the costs we would bear.
Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.
Take the COS work environment survey to assess your company.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Collaboration: Six Common (Misguided) Strategies

In the first of this series, I shared my top five reasons most companies (inadvertently) fail at collaboration. In this post, we’ll explore six common strategies that companies consciously pursue in an effort to boost collaboration – strategies that generally fall short of expectations.

For those of you already on your third cup of coffee, let’s start with the punchline: Quick fixes don’t work, and often lead to negative consequences. That’s not too surprising. What is surprising is how often these strategies are adopted despite consistently underwhelming results.

1.   Open-Plan Offices

The fact that open-plan offices fail to boost effective collaboration is not news. In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain lays out the research convincingly: At least a third of us are introverts and don’t work well in noisy spaces where frequent interruptions are not only the norm, but actually the design.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but for people to collaborate effectively, they need regular opportunities to work individually and maintain focus. Many workers do their best and most creative work when they’re alone and in quiet spaces. The theory that impromptu interactions fuel creativity and innovation has merit, but only to a point. In practice, the costs associated with open-plan offices very often outweigh the benefits companies derive.

Key take-away: Don’t implement an open-plan office design simply to improve collaboration. Instead, provide designated spaces, centrally located, where people from throughout the organization are encouraged to interact casually.

2.   Flattening the Organization

It’s easy to underestimate the value of effective managers. Too often, we load them up with individual tasks and responsibilities to justify their expense. In flattening our organizations, we also load them up with more people to manage. Even the best managers end up with too little time to engage with and support their teams effectively.

Collaboration rarely improves simply by consolidating management.  For better results, existing managers should be mentored and trained in collaborative leadership. They should be encouraged, supported and acknowledged when they:

  • lead in accordance with agreed-upon values and principles;
  • eschew power and politics as their primary tools of influence;
  • embrace mutual accountability and feedback conversations regularly and often;
  • address conflicts openly and with an aim to develop win/win outcomes.

Key take-away: If you want to improve collaboration, don’t simply remove layers of management. Inspire and train managers and their coworkers in collaboration and collaborative leadership.

3.   Leading and Managing by Consensus

It’s not uncommon for people to equate collaboration with consensus. The problem is that building consensus takes time, and its overuse will drive people crazy. Consensus is just one of many viable approaches to decision-making. We couldn’t build a house using just one tool. We shouldn’t try to lead a team or an organization by leaning upon one decision rule.

Effective collaboration makes use of many forms of decision-making, including: simple majority, supermajority, flip-of-a-coin (random), consultative, authoritative, hierarchical, consensus, unanimity… and more. Each approach has its pros and cons. Each can be used effectively or poorly. When the stakes are low, for example, a simple coin toss or majority vote will likely serve the group far better than the alternatives.  The approach we select in any given situation should depend upon the context, and should be agreed upon in advance by the stakeholders.

Key take-away: Consensus is only one of many approaches to making decisions. It’s not synonymous with collaboration. The over-reliance upon any one form of decision-making will undermine collaboration in the long run.

4.   Deploying New Collaboration Software

Collaboration software can provide huge benefits to organizations. It can lower barriers to communication, facilitate work among geographically dispersed teams, and democratize access to information and decision-making. In short, good software can facilitate collaboration and enhance productivity.

So where’s the pitfall? It’s when decision-makers are seduced by claims that new software will positively impact company culture. In truth, collaboration software alone is unlikely to shift company culture at all. If, for example, the existing culture is one where information is kept tightly guarded, where fear is a primary motivator, or where fault-finding and blaming are commonplace, new tools will not eliminate those characteristics. They might even enable users to exhibit unwanted behaviors more broadly.

Key take-away: Collaboration software is like an amplifier: It can make a reasonably collaborative culture more productive, or an already toxic culture more dysfunctional.

5.   Making “Trust” the Focus of Team Building

If collaboration is the engine, trust is the oil. Trust makes everything run more smoothly. So why not focus on building trust? The misconception here is the belief that trust building is job #1 – that investing in team off-sites, with “trust falls” and “high ropes” courses, provides a necessary foundation for collaboration to flourish.

Trust, as it turns out, is multi-dimensional and built over time. In her article, The Grammars of Trust, Dr. Dana Sherman finds that trust is based, at least in part, upon our answers to three questions: Do our colleagues possess the necessary skills and abilities? (Competence) Are they predictable and reliable? (Integrity) And do they have our best interests at heart? (Benevolence) When we don’t have any history together, we may initially extend “faith” toward others. But faith is fleeting. Over time, the more confirming evidence we obtain along these three dimensions, the more trust we feel.

That’s also why trust is best built on the job, where we can demonstrate trustworthiness in the relevant context. When we collaborate effectively – when we agree to perform a task and we do it well, do it on time, and do it in a way that is sensitive to the needs of others – that’s what creates trust.

Key take-away: Don’t make trust-building the explicit focus of teamwork. Instead, teach people how to collaborate effectively. Encourage them to practice and celebrate success. Effective collaboration is what builds lasting trust among coworkers, not the other way around.

6.   Teaching about Personality Types

For many individuals, learning about personality types is fascinating and even quite valuable. But in groups, such training programs generally fail to improve collaboration.  Although there’s value in learning to appreciate differences, the specific information that group members learn about each other too often gets misused or abused. Why is that?

The way we show up in groups (our perceived personality type) is highly contextual. Consider, for example, how you feel and behave in different meetings: With your boss; with your direct reports; with a new client or vendor; with the executive leadership team; at lunch with your peers. Change the context, the level of stress or perceived level of safety, and we show up quite differently.

The number of personality types and the number of differences between each type also leads to trouble. It’s challenging even to understand one personality type (our own type) and its implications. It’s much harder to remember all the personality types, their variations and the implications of each. No wonder collaboration suffers when coworkers use their new and limited understanding of personality types in order to assess what others may need or want.

Key take-away: Encourage individuals to learn about and appreciate the natural differences among people. But discourage teams from using their understanding of personality types as an alternative to exchanging direct feedback and making clear requests.

There Are No Quick Fixes…

In leadership and management, things are rarely black and white, right or wrong, good or bad. That’s certainly true here, as well. There can be valid reasons to pursue some of the very strategies that I’m cautioning against. The key is to check your assumptions, build internal support for any change you wish to pursue, and whenever possible, to invest incrementally.

Fostering effective collaboration takes time and patience. Just about any quick fix we attempt will likely fall short or even backfire. But meaningful, positive and sustainable culture change is possible and very worthwhile. In my next post, I’ll address some of the central tenets of leading and influencing change collaboratively.

Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.

Take the COS work environment survey to assess your company.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Top 5 Reasons Most Companies Fail at Collaboration

Collaboration and collaborative leadership are hot topics these days. Most leaders and managers have gotten the memo: Learn to inspire your people to collaborate effectively or watch your company slip into obscurity. Traditional command and control approaches to leadership no longer work, and it’s pretty clear they haven’t for years. As millennials join a predominantly knowledge-based workforce, those outdated approaches simply lead to disengagement.

There’s a big difference, however, between awareness and action – between knowing change is afoot and being part of that change. Creating a culture where collaboration thrives is challenging.  It doesn’t happen by itself, or simply by hyping collaboration as a company value. It takes conscious work and investment. Here are the top five reasons most companies fail at collaboration… and what to do about it:

1.   No Common Definition

If you ask around at work, you’ll find that collaboration means different things to different people. For some, it’s synonymous with “consensus”, which is often associated with slow and frustrating progress. For others, collaboration is all about online tools, network applications, and social media. And for business managers, it brings to mind vendor relationships, strategic partnerships, or other forms of inter-organizational alliances.

The point is that having different definitions of what it means to collaborate represents a fundamental barrier to collaboration itself. In other words, if we don’t agree on precisely what skills and behaviors are needed in order to collaborate effectively, our efforts will inevitably lead to frustration and unmet expectations.

To do: Develop and agree upon the specific skills and behaviors your team expects when collaborating.

2.   Time Pressure

If we had a common definition for collaboration, it would likely include the notion of “alignment.”  If working together is like being on a rowing team, then “alignment" is like getting everyone rowing in the same direction and in tight unison.

As it turns out, alignment is a fundamental principle of collaborative work.  And getting aligned takes time. Have you heard the expression, “We’re running too fast to take the bicycle off our backs”?  In our fast paced business environments, leaders often succumb to time pressures by shortcutting processes that would serve to build alignment.

Classically, they’ll promote those who are decisive and self-confident, i.e., capable of making decisions quickly and under pressure. They’ll bark at their teams, “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions!” But those are precisely the habits that tend to undermine organizational alignment, leading in the short term to stress, confusion, damaged relationships and poor results.  Over time, investing too little in building alignment inevitably leads to disengagement and turnover.

The old adage holds true: We don’t have time to do it right… but we have time to do it over.

To do: Acknowledge that time pressure undermines effective collaboration, and create opportunities for building the alignment necessary for generating good results.

3.   Implicit Process

What happens when we have no agreed upon definition of collaboration, and when we’re under time pressure? “Implicit process” is what happens. Human beings are creatures of habit. All of us, every day, do things in ways that have become second nature. These paths we take are so well worn that they require very little conscious thought or decision-making. We’re on autopilot. But when we’re collaborating with others, our implicit approaches are likely to conflict with other peoples’ approaches.

Take, for example, making a business decision. Commonly, someone will select a decision rule without checking for the group’s support: “Let’s vote to determine which option we’ll choose. Raise your hand if you prefer option A.” Before you know it, the votes are cast and the majority prevails. Too frequently, we don’t know and we don’t check whether those in the minority are willing to support the decision.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the typical business meeting. Observe how often the meeting “process” is left implicit. If we’re lucky, the group will know in advance what it is they’re hoping to accomplish. But how they accomplish their work (the process) is rarely explicitly spelled out, much less agreed upon up front.

To do: Take time to make your group’s processes explicit, and seek support for those processes before using them.

4.   Win/Lose Culture

From the earliest age, we’re taught to compete. We’re taught to measure our success relative to the others around us. Whether on the sports field, in the classroom, or on a college entrance exam, we’re evaluated on the basis of comparison.

Inexorably, our training leads us to think and behave with a win/lose mindset: If I compare favorably, I will win and others will lose.  Our companies promote this mindset in the way that compensation, bonuses and promotions are offered. Perhaps the most misguided and overused expression of win/lose is found in the yearly performance review with forced ranking. Profit sharing bonuses are awarded on the basis of how employees rank relative to each other. Managers are directed to assess their direct reports, ensuring, for example, that no more than 5% are awarded five out of five stars.

These types of incentives are commonplace, yet they pit employee against employee, team against team, department against department, nearly ensuring environments where gossip, self-promotion and backstabbing are the norm.

To do: Look for practices that reflect and entrench a win/lose mindset; Invent and encourage alternative approaches that support a win/win mindset.

5.   Insufficient and Poorly Delivered Feedback

What makes feedback so critical to collaboration? Simply put, we can’t read each other’s minds. And yet, we often act as though mindreading is an expectation in collaborating with others.

Human beings are pretty good at “reading faces.” We can tell when our coworkers are happy, upset, angry, frustrated or sad.  Sometimes, we react in ways that are unconscious and counter-productive. But even when we use our face-reading skills compassionately to guide our responses, the results are often not positive. Why is that?

Employing the Golden Rule, we behave in ways that reflect how we would want to be treated under the circumstances. This doesn’t always work because the Golden Rule needs an upgrade. For collaboration to go smoothly, we must strive to “do unto others as they would have us do unto them.” And to make that work, we need to slow down, get curious, ask for and offer explicit feedback.

Ken Blanchard calls feedback “the breakfast of champions.” That’s because it’s hard to do well. It requires training and practice to develop these skills. It also requires us as individuals to manage our egos – no small matter for most of us.  But as managers and coworkers get proficient, and as giving and receiving feedback become part of the day-to-day culture, collaboration has the best chance of taking root and growing.

To do: Provide training in the art of giving and receiving feedback, and offer whatever support is necessary to reinforce a culture where feedback becomes routine.

Take Action, Collaboratively...

Collaboration is more than a value. It’s a way of working together that actually works. Share and use this checklist with your co-workers. Assess together where investing in training and support is most likely to make the difference, and then make those investments. Small steps, designed and implemented collaboratively, inspire bigger steps. In time, your team will be dining together at the breakfast table of champions.

Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.

Take the COS work environment survey to assess your company.