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.

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