How to create the right conditions for sustained collaboration

Feb 10, 2020

Employees the world over are encouraged to ‘collaborate’ with zeal, but there’s much more to successful collaboration than technology and open-plan offices.

Picasso wasn’t a big fan of collaboration. The Spanish-born artist once said, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible”. Yet businesses can’t seem to get enough of it; they’ve even torn down the walls and developed software to ensure that people work together. And Picasso wasn’t the only one who railed against the idea of working with others. The co-founder of Apple Inc., Steve Wozniak, was also unequivocal in his advice: “Work alone… not on a committee. Not on a team”.

So why did the collaboration craze catch on? And is it all that bad?

Skills and culture

Collaboration often gets a bad rap because, in many cases, organisations’ efforts to promote and sustain collaboration fall short. Writing in Harvard Business Review, the behavioural scientist Francesca Gino accused leaders of thinking about collaboration too narrowly: as a value to cultivate but not a skill to teach. Her solution is to “teach people to genuinely listen to one another; to approach discussions with empathy, not opinions; to become comfortable with feedback; to lead and follow; to speak with clarity and avoid abstractions; and to have win-win interactions”.

That’s a lot for any leader to unpack, but it illustrates one critical point – there’s a good chance that asking your people to collaborate without helping them to build the necessary skills will result in frustration and failure. But rather than blame your people, Francesca encourages leaders who are exasperated by a lack of collaboration to start by asking themselves one simple question: what have you done to encourage it today?
According to Maighread Kelly, Director at Collaboration Ireland, collaboration is also a mindset in many ways. Giving thought to prospects for collaboration, be that within your organisation or with third parties, can open up new opportunities and generate a higher level of engagement all round. In her view, there are three critical elements in a fruitful collaboration:

  • It must be a collaboration of the willing – all partners must buy-in fully to the project;
  • The initiator must find the right partner(s), both personally and culturally; and
  • A good process must underpin collaboration.

So, it essentially boils down to two key components: skills and fit. If people have the skills necessary to work together, often through uncertainty and disagreement, and the inclination to do so from a culture and values perspective, the chance of success rises significantly.

Unexpected challenges

However, collaboration also throws up unique challenges that must be managed sensitively. According to Amanda Shantz, MBA Director at Trinity Business School, collaboration is useful for highly complex and strategic tasks such as overhauling an IT system or entering a new market, and such collaborations require diverse and specialised skills – but these very characteristics can also impede collaboration. “Take diversity, for example,” she said. “The challenging tasks that businesses face today require the expertise of people from diverse backgrounds to spark innovation. Research shows, however, that people are less likely to collaborate when others are seen as somehow different from them in terms of age, gender or ethnicity, for instance.”

Amanda believes that strong leadership is required to cultivate a culture of collaboration where individuals succeed both because of, and in spite of their diversity. “People need to understand who has the requisite knowledge in, and outside, the business,” she said. “They need to feel that they are operating in a safe place to ask questions and make mistakes, and there needs to be a strong sense of community that’s inspired by an overarching goal.”

Interestingly, the lack of an overarching goal is one of the most common reasons for failure in collaboration according to Maighread, who helps guide collaborative projects in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors. “It isn’t good enough to collaborate just because you want to work with another person or organisation,” she said. “For a collaboration to be successful, there has to be a good strategic rationale and a strong business case.” If this is in place, other common threats to collaborative efforts – such as a lack of stakeholder buy-in; poor relationships; a lack of trust; and poor processes – then become more manageable because there is a clear roadmap for the future.

Collaboration in action

Chartered Accountants Ireland discovered the benefit of planning first-hand in 2019 when it undertook a project to update the Institute’s syllabus to account for the impact of technology on the profession, but without overshadowing its core elements – audit, financial reporting, taxation, business leadership and critical thinking. With a limited timeframe for implementation, the Institute couldn’t ‘go it alone’. It instead collaborated with a host of third-parties to revitalise and future-proof the syllabus.

“We broke our projects into two parts, developing new elective subjects in collaboration with CIPFA (the Chartered Institute of Public Financial Accountants) and the Institute of Banking before tackling the technology aspect,” said John Munnelly, FAE Paper Development Executive at Chartered Accountants Ireland. “From my research on the technology side, it was clear that trailblazing companies were doing great things, so I contacted Alteryx, Tableau and UiPath – but these companies had never collaborated with an accountancy body before.”

To secure buy-in, John approached senior leaders in each organisation to lay out his vision for collaboration. “I knew that I needed senior project sponsors in our partner organisations, who understood the importance – not only for our profession but also, for their industries,” he said. Working with CIPFA and the Institute of Banking was an efficient profess, according to John, and they both delivered fit-for-purpose syllabi for the public sector and financial services electives. However, collaboration with the technology companies was more complicated.

“Once the initial scoping exercise was complete, it was important to share our vision for the new syllabus with our partners,” he added. “This was a learning experience for the companies and while we ultimately produced a suite of materials that complemented the ACA qualification, the low point came when we realised that something was missing.”

Although the new syllabus taught essential principles in the areas of data preparation, data visualisation and robotic process automation, this teaching needed to be underpinned by practical experience. “This led to an audacious request for training licences for all FAE students,” added John. “And it was a testament to the strength of our relationships that all partners offered training licences for their products for all FAE students. This would have been quite disappointing had it gone differently, but relationships are indeed at the core of collaboration – particularly when issues arise.”

Conflict and collaboration

Although the Institute’s experience of collaboration was very smooth and cordial, it is not uncommon for teams to experience conflict as part of the collaboration process. Indeed, somewhat ironically, the absence of conflict may be a warning signal, according to Amanda. “In some cases, people who are collaborating become so excited about their ideas and activities that they shut down naysayers – nobody wants to be the skunk at the picnic,” she said. “Alternatively, an overbearing micromanager who always has the ‘right’ answer doesn’t encourage the type of discussion necessary to optimise collaborative efforts. In both cases, it might be a sign that the environment isn’t safe enough for people to speak out.”

But all is not lost. According to Amanda, there are many ways for leaders to increase people’s perception that they can – and indeed, are expected to – put all views on the table without fear or favour. “Senior managers need to set the tone from the top that collaboration and conflict go hand-in-hand,” she said. But although senior leadership rhetoric matters, research has shown that the behaviour of mid-level line managers is especially crucial. “In particular, what’s important is how mid-level managers respond to failures, invite conversation and demonstrate humility and curiosity in their interactions with others,” she said.

Words of wisdom

And that isn’t the only advice Amanda has for those tasked with building a culture of collaboration in their organisation. “Organisations need to invest in building and maintaining social relationships across the organisation,” she said. “This requires a technological infrastructure that makes it easy for people from different parts of the organisation – often located globally, but even across the building – to work effectively as a team. And the use of software to connect people by projects, not by roles, is another way to utilise technology to support collaboration.”

Aside from technology, Amanda returns to the critical role of leadership. She urges leaders to ensure that collaborative behaviours among senior executives are visible to employees and to avoid the tendency to make an executive a standalone ‘hero’ in his or her unit. “Senior leaders need to ensure that employees are selected for – and trained in – the skills needed for collaboration, such as productively resolving conflict and active listening,” she added. “They could also sponsor events and networking activities and host innovative and fun opportunities for people to connect.”

Mid-level managers have the most critical role to play in championing collaborative efforts, however. “They need to support the strategic goal for collaboration by coaching employees on how to connect with different parts of the business,” Amanda said. “Research shows that managers can increase collaboration by changing their leadership style as the team’s project progresses. In the beginning, the manager should consider focusing on the task at hand and articulating accountabilities, but when conflict emerges, the manager may consider switching to a relationship-oriented leadership style.”

So if you’re frustrated by your organisation’s inability to collaborate successfully in a sustained way, remember Francesca Gino’s simple question: what have you done to encourage it today?

Maighread Kelly is a Director at Collaboration Ireland.

Amanda Shantz is MBA Director at Trinity Business School.

John Munnelly is FAE Paper Development Executive at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

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