The foundations your team need to collaborate

Why is it that some teams are more collaborative than others?

It’s not something in the water. There’s no training course that instantly made them all great collaborators. So what’s the secret? Nailing the four essentials that make the right culture for collaboration to bloom.

Collaboration is about disrupting the norm and working together to create and deliver new ideas. It can start with something as simple as a conversation if one shared story triggers a cascade of ideas that produces something that’s far greater than the sum of its parts.

But if there’s no new ideas being delivered then you are just hanging out and spitballing about how to put the world to rights. And while that’s fun, it’s not collaborating.

It’s also worth checking if collaboration is right for your team. Collaboration and teamwork are not the same thing. Teamwork occurs in hierarchical structure around a known process or outcome. If your work relies on rinse and repeat efficiency then you don't need to collaborate. You need a strong cooperative team culture to get the job done. Collaboration is about creating something new by combining different perspectives and expertise.

So why is it so hard? Unfortunately the way we are hard-wired means we struggle to balance the two competing parts of what makes us human. On one side, we are competitive creatures preset to look after our own needs. On the other, we also know that we achieve more when we work together.

But to work together needs a strong level of maturity and confidence. Confidence that comes from knowing that the precursors have all been met. Those precursors are basic human psychology. Before we can move into a collaborative creative mindset we need to know that we are not threatening our own physiological, safety, social or psychological needs. In a work context we need to know that our career or ability to earn a living is safe and that we won’t damage our reputation.

And that’s why the organisational culture is so important for good collaboration.

Creating a culture where collaboration can flourish takes sustained hard work on four foundational prerequisites:

1. Get in T shape
Let’s start with the people in your team. What sort of people are they? Collaboration works best if you can recruit or foster a team of T-shaped people. T-shaped people have the deep knowledge and expertise you will need and would expect from an I-shaped person, but the ability to connect with others through empathy and curiosity. They have the confidence and ability to connect with and build on ideas from other team members. In contrast I-shaped people tend to focus only on their area of expertise.

It’s not just people that can be I-shaped. I-shaped company structures built around competing silos or a hierarchical “knowledge is power” culture make collaboration so much harder.

A collaborative team needs to actively work across and outside of the silos. Encourage everyone to create networks in other disciplines and other organisations that they can reach out to. Not only will it be invaluable when you need some different perspectives or advice to solve a problem, but it also helps spread the word about the good things you are achieving.

2. The F word
How many projects have you seen jump like lemmings off the cliff to failure? Or wander off into the distance never quite delivering? Even though the team knew deep down that they were failing, they couldn't admit to it or stop. That’s what happens if you have a culture with no tolerance to failure.

To create a collaborative culture you need to reframe the issue. The initial phases of creating anything new should always have some quick low-fi experiments to test and refine your ideas before you move into implementation. Experiments are good. Sometimes the results don’t come out as you’d hoped but that’s okay. You learn why and adapt. You haven’t failed. Failure only happens when you can’t learn and pivot your efforts to something that has a better chance of success.

Making it safe for people to try something new is fundamental to good collaboration. But it also needs people who have the confidence, maturity and mutual trust to take the first leap. Initially, teams will iterate and learn, gauge what's working and then progress with prior understanding of what's at risk.

3. Create your north star
Great collaborative teams have their own unique north star. They are all clear on what they want to achieve and why. It’s a unifying vision they’ve forged together that motivates them and speaks to their purpose. It’s a long way from the dusty or meaningless vision statements that feature in so many corporate business plans.

Having a north star is important, because along the way you’ll have plenty of disagreements on how something should be done or forks in the road that might take you off-course. Your north star keeps you aligned.

It will get challenging at times so to support that unifying vision you’ll also need some shared values and an agreement on how you are going to work together. Adopting a values based framework can help achieve this. Use the LiquidCollab Explorer quiz to explore the values and behaviours of a good collaborator, and encourage your team to share and discuss their results together. The more you understand each other the more equipped you’ll be as a team to achieve the balance that’s needed for good collaboration.

4. Reward what matters
This one is about cause and effect. It’s not just what gets measured that matters. It’s what gets rewarded that matters. And that’s where many organisations come unstuck.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate. As part of an organisation-wide senior leaders’ development program, I had a session with a development coach. The conversation went along the lines of;

“Fiona, your performance rating is top quartile but you need to look for a role with a bigger budget and team responsibility to progress to the top.”
“Why should I need to do that, when I’ve just given up a role exactly like that to lead this really important transformation program?”

I was greeted with silence and a very confused look from the coach said it all. Challenging the norm is hard.

It also explains why there’s often a senior management permafrost in an organisation. A layer that’s just impermeable to change. Put yourself in their shoes. If you've worked hard all your career to get near the top and size really does matter for power and authority, why would you seek to change it?

What are the alternatives in your organisation for smart collaborative people that don’t want to maintain the status quo? You need to think about how you can better reward and recognise the innovative skills and behaviours that are needed to create the flexibility and responsiveness your organisation needs to thrive. That’s the mark of a truly collaborative culture.

This is a big one, and it may be above your paygrade, but you can start small and find ways to recognise and reward collaborative achievements and behaviours in your team.

If you'd like to sharpen your collaboration skills or read more, check out the Liquid Collab.