What makes collaboration work?

Companies and leaders everywhere is shifting more and more from the traditional command and control way of leading, towards networked collaboration. The pace of this shift is speeding up too, due to two important elements.

Firstly, the traditional approach isn’t agile or responsive enough to deal with the pace of change that is the reality today, driven largely by the revolution of connectivity and access to information. Secondly, when difficult times strike, the ability of a company to absorb the punches delivered by a declining market, heavy losses, or an unexpected competitor  – also depends on flexibility to regroup to face the challenge. Companies who are very rigid and vertically integrated, instead of horisontally integrated, are likely to sway under pressure or even fracture.

Under the lofty term of horisontal integration, resides a very simple human activity: collaboration. It is powerful, because since ancient times collaboration is what enabled humans to survive a hostile environment and gradually propel themselves towards civilisation through a succession of innovation. Come the industrial age, despite all the progress that was made – with respect to leadership it appears we almost took a few steps back.

With the evolution of society, groups of interdependent individuals were split into hierarchies, and when the concept of company arrived: into rigid job roles – the company mirroring the patriarchal system of landlords and serfs. Of course there are many good things to be said about structure, focus, predictability of outcome, clarity of responsibilities and so on – but increasingly, given the challenges at hand today – it is not a matter of choosing between performance based leadership (enforced top-down, and supported by performance indicators, remuneration, bonuses and a set of sticks and carrots) and relationship based leadership (founded on deep appreciation for each others’ abilities, knowledge, ideas and a sense of interdependence, loyalty and team spirit with all, regardless of rank).

It is about balancing both – creating focus and results, but equally allowing creativity to thrive and motivation to blossom by making sure people are accountable to each other ethically, not just through indicators of performance. So we may appreciate the importance and value of collaboration, but what makes it work? Or rather, how come so often it doesn’t?

Four principles are at the heart of successful collaboration:

  1. Appreciation. First and foremost collaboration requires a mutual appreciation of each others’ abilities, skills,  knowledge and ideas – a sense that none of us are as smart as all of us. People who value and appreciate what others have to say naturally gravitate towards each other: at parties, in companies – often forming friendships along the way. Appreciating someone doesn’t mean you blindly agree with everything they have to say or want, but you know they are essential to what you are trying to do, which means you will rebuke them kindly as opposed to rudely, you will listen harder when they disagree with you and you will be keener to ensure they are being heard and their input is taken onboard. Much of appreciation is in non-verbal communication, what we don’t say to each other speaks volumes – and if there is no appreciation underneath, the non-verbal communication will show this immediately.

  2. Trust – is built on appreciation. It’s easier to trust someone who appreciates us than vice versa. Trust is not just about what exists between two equals – it is also needed from both above and below. Trust from leaders above you to figure out what needs to be done means people will try harder to not only do what is asked of them, but also go that extra mile to challenge their thinking and incorporate the learning. Trust from below keeps the wheels spinning. And trust between individuals ensures an efficient engine.

  3. Commitment – is about a sense among two individuals that the commitment of one to doing what it takes to deliver the project will be matched by the other. Someone asked me a while ago why the two of us don’t do more projects together. I had to think about this long and hard, before I realised the answer: I had had enough experiences in the past with this person suggesting that when the two of us were about to collaborate, I ended up doing the brunt of the work. To me this meant that our commitment levels weren’t matched. It may be down to a misunderstanding too – but the effect of this, ultimately – was reduced collaboration.

  4. Recognition. The opposite of command and control (being told you need to do something) is taking personal initiative. Suggesting an idea, doing something for someone because you can see the need for it to be done, even if no one ordered you to do it. We do a lot out of altruism, and altruism is essential for collaboration. It is not the driving force, but it is a key lubricant – and nothing kills altruism quicker than failing to give recognition to those who made a difference. As organisations move towards being more horisontally integrated, it often becomes harder to trace all the people who were pivotal to making something happen – they aren’t part of direct reporting lines, traditional organisational charts don’t show a link to them, but they are the connectors who extend a hand beyond departmental walls, divisional barriers and bring things to life. If we don’t recognise their achievement (and it comes down to us to do it!) the bonds weaken over time – it is exhausting to be altruistic if people only take advantage of you.

These four elements are simple, perhaps overly simple, but together they create a context for collaboration to take place, spontaneously – enhancing creativity, motivation and ultimately innovation.