What Collaborative Teams Do Differently

I sincerely hope that you’ve had a chance to be a part of at least one highly collaborative team! If you have, my thoughts here will attempt to describe that peak experience and what a collaborative team does differently. If you have not, my goal is to capture the essence of the being on a collaborative team, so that you are more alert for this type of experience.

When you’re a part of this type of team, you contribute meaningfully to something bigger than yourself or anything you could have done alone. You step back in amazement and wonder that, together, big and important work was done. You’ve bonded, often making life-long friendships, with those that worked side by side with you.

That’s not to say that you loved every moment and that there weren’t times of friction and conflict. Often times the task was herculean, the resources scarce, and the work you did far exceeded anything described in your job description. At times you wondered if you could really do what you set out to do.

But, you did it. No, that is not true. In reality, “we” did it. Together, in spite of the daunting task, the team pulled together, did what needed to be done and made it happen. In my experience, collaborative teams I’ve worked with have started green-field manufacturing plants in countries foreigns to us, implemented ERP systems in complex ecosystems, started companies and put together meaningful learning programs with long lasting impact.

What a Truly Collaborative Team Looks Like

I’ve been a part of many teams that did “big” work and hard work that were not collaborative. On these teams, the work got done. We worked hard. We overcame obstacles. But these teams didn’t have the same feel, the same zest and the same spark that others did.

So what makes a collaborative team different, and how do they function? Here is my take, from my experience:

  • Collaborative teams have a laser like focus on the common purpose and why it is important. There was deep clarity about the work of the team and we knew that our work mattered. There were plenty of times that we thought there was no way, no how, that we could do it, but we still showed up every day and worked as if we could.
  • While there was clarity on the purpose, the day to day details about how to achieve the purpose were not well defined. We had the freedom to meet the objective using our own skills, brain power and will. This was not for a lack of skill; it merely reflected that this work was new and different than what had been done before. We were charged to find the way forward.
  • Although everyone on the team had a role, specific expertise and was a responsible for a “part” of the whole, yet everyone pitched in to do whatever was needed. I can’t think of a single, solitary time when I head a fellow team member on one of the teams complain “that this is not MY job”. Our job was to deliver on our mission and everyone’s job was to make that happen.
  • There were not “prima donnas”, but there also weren’t slackers. There were clearly some folks in charge, but leadership flowed naturally depending on the needs of the work in that particular moment. Team members who didn’t contribute or were too “good” to get their hands dirty didn’t last long on these teams.
  • Creative solutions emerged. As these collaborative teams were traversing new ground, we brought a sense of possibility and a lack of constraints that freed us up to do things differently. There was a willingness to listen to new ideas and to take a risk to try them. There were passionately debates about how to proceed, ultimately deciding and getting behind a way forward (that often combined several of the ideas from many different team members).
  • There was a strong sense of team work. Everyone was valued and it showed. We worked hard together, but also got to know each other personally. We socialized together. Traveled together. Knew each other’s families. We supported and helped each other, in and outside of work. We balanced task and team (or relationship). And many, many years later, these people are still some of my closest friends.

Synthesizing What Collaborative Teams Do Differently

The best I can synthesize what collaborative teams do differently is that they:

  • focus on both TASK and TEAM
  • are highly accountable and get work done
  • achieve big things
  • are creative and innovative in pursuit of accomplishing what they set out to do. At the same time, they nurture relationships
  • respect everyone’s contribution and expect everyone to contribute
  • disagree at times, but only in the pursuit of the shared goal
  • are more fluid in tasks and leadership and idea generation
  • support, challenge, and work hard
  • celebrate successes and the stories of their failures become part of the team lore about the journey

Is Your Team Collaborative?

If you’d like to size up either leadership or team capabilities with collaboration – reach out. We have a great tool for self-assessment.

If you’d like to nurture more collaboration in your work place, let’s talk! Just reach out to me at kris@evergreenleadership.com

What Is Collaboration and Why Is It Needed Today?

True confession….when no less than three different clients this year asked for help on collaboration I experienced a sense of validation and vindication. On no less than three prior occasions, as I was up for a promotion in my earlier careers, I was denied. The reason for not making the cut: “I was TOO collaborative.”

There was no denying I was collaborative. Still am. Always will be. I do my best work side by side with others, dreaming, creating, and then doing. But TOO collaborative? How could that be?

Because of my ability to collaborate, the solutions that emerged to solve business problems were innovative. They stuck. They had deep support from key influencers. Wasn’t that a good thing?

And so, in the past few months I’ve done something else I’m really good at – exploring the concept of collaboration. Reading the current thought leaders (with no less than 6 books consumed). Defining it. Creating content. Facilitating workshops.

Through all this work, I came to a stunning conclusion. It’s an insight that was years in the making, but before I share that, let me share some thoughts on why collaboration such a “hot topic”.

Some Background

At the turn of the 20th century, when new inventions such as telegraphs and telephones and faster forms of transportation enabled the better movement of goods and people, larger and more centralized organizations took shape. It was a time of centralization and with that specialization. It was a time when bigger was better, and it was a time where industry disruption was measured in decades and not days. Where the more efficient you could be, the better the results you realized.

Today we are in the midst of a dramatic and foundational shift. This is due to a myriad of factors: lightning speed communication to anyone just about anywhere, affordable computing power, global connectivity and the emergences of breakthrough ideas faster than they are able to be consumed.

The Implications

Due to that shift, entire industries are disrupted regularly, often from an unforeseen competitor. Who could have imagined that the taxi companies that had big cities locked down would face fierce competition from someone from the suburbs with a Honda Civic, a smart phone and some time on their hands?  Who would have thought that anyone could carry a library full of books on a device that fits in their hand twelve years ago? Do you suspect that the execs at Hilton and Hyatt were planning to be out performed by a scattered network of homeowners and an App? (Interesting note: today AIRBNB exceeds the valuation of Hilton and Hyatt combined in spite of having no “real” properties, only technology and a network of collaborators).

We are in a time when being large may be a liability, when no one leader can know it all, and when fresh ideas and quick time to market is a vital competitive advantage.

We are in a time where collaboration, not competition, is the advantage you need to remain relevant, to be sustainable, to thrive.

The Reality

Yet today many organizations and leaders are stuck in different paradigms: That bigger is better. That the leader is the one that knows all and directs all. That diverse people and ideas are window dressing rather than a true creative and competitive advantage. That leadership resides at the top and that allowing it to surface anywhere else in the organization presents a threat to maintaining order, position and efficiency.

Many are realizing that these “industrial era” beliefs are getting in the way, hindering performance and unsustainable. They realize there needs to be a new way to operate in a world that moves so quickly, that being nimble is more important than being big, and creativity and innovation are crushed in command and control environments. They realize that collaboration is the way forward.

So What Exactly is Collaboration?

That is exactly the question I’ve explored in the last three months. As I often find it helpful to define concepts by what they are not, the chart below both defines and contrasts collaboration to commanding, coordinating, and cooperation. Many are close cousins, but to me, collaboration is defined and differentiated by this:

Collaboration is when a diverse group of people work side by side to co-create a solution to a problem that none of them could have solved on their own. It is marked by a deep sense of trust and respect for all team members and a strong desire by all to achieve a common purpose that matters. It is when purpose is held in higher regard than position. It is messy at times. The exploratory nature of collaboration means it is neither very linear nor very efficient. It is a place of ideas, of experimentation, of possibilities. It is an environment in which individual egos are sublimated and where a sense of camaraderie and team work prevail. It is the fertile ground from which radically new ideas, products and solutions emerge.

My Stunning Conclusion

As I did this deeper dive into collaboration, it suddenly hit me: “they were right – I was too collaborative!” For I realized that, for me, collaboration was an overused strength. Collaboration, by its nature, is inefficient, both in time and resources. It is an amazing leadership style when situations are complex and solutions are unknown. But in many situations, in which decisions need to be made quickly or when the answer is knows – a collaborative approach is inefficient, frustrating for others and wastes precious time and resources. Knowing when to be a leader that fosters collaboration is great, but in my growth areas were to know when to collaborate and when to shift into a different leadership style, more attuned to the situation.

So, in the spirit of helping you become a better leader, here is my summary of “collaboration at a glance”. In subsequent posts, I’ll do deeper dives into collaboration, so a great starting point is understanding where collaboration fits in the range of leadership actions.

Collaboration at a Glance

The Innovation Imperative: Four Things to Foster Innovation in Organizations

This post is an adaptation of remarks given at the International Pet Food Forum at an event hosted by Diana Pet Food

The forces of change surround us and are unrelenting. Back in 1965, Moore predicted that computing power would exponentially increase. Almost 60 years later that still holds true. Fiber optics allow us to move data at amazing speeds and the cost of storage has plummeted from a cool $300K for 1 gig in 1980, to virtually free today. In addition to the accelerating power of the internet, we see an explosion in the speed of change. It may be driven by technology but it touches all that we do.

So we find ourselves in an environment in which disruption is the steady state. All you must do is flip through your smart phone to see the casualties. Go to a movie theater? No just stream it. Buy a video camera? No thanks – I have my phone. Buy a flashlight for an emergency? Nope, just have your phone handy. If you were a flashlight manufacturer not that long ago, would you have guessed that AT&T and Apple were going to be competitive threats?

This it is NOT business as usual.

Examples abound. We know that 88% of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 no longer exist today: Blockbuster, Kodak, Borders, Sears (Sear’s Tower – the original mail order biz), Blackberry and more. 50 years ago, if you made it onto the Fortune 500 list, you were likely to stay there for 75 years. Now the average duration is 15 years and declining. And the big players today – Google, Uber and Facebook are barely teenagers in a human lifespan, yet they dominate.

The differentiator – an imperative to INNOVATE.

A quick look at Fast Companies Most Innovative Companies of 201list tells the tale.  The most innovative companies are also disproportionately the most profitable, the fastest growing, and the most likely to bump out a longstanding company from the Fortune 500 list. Leading the pack: Apple, followed by Netflix, Square, Amazon, Patagonia, CVS and Spotify. Certainly an interesting mix – with one common denominator: innovation as a core competency.

Today the race is being won by those who can rethink the market, ride these forces of exponential change – and create something nimble, agile, and adaptable. And in today’s world – that equates to sustainability. Blockbuster went bust – but Netflix is killing it. Borders is boarded up- but Amazon, which started as a book seller, now allows anyone to set up a storefront and sell virtually anything. Amazon Web Services, which grew out of the company’s own e-commerce infrastructure needs, has become a $13 billion business.

In the Industrial Era, organizations of the late 1800’s  through the 20th century, bigger was better. Stability was key. Companies competed by sheer size – the goal was to crush their competition. Bureaucracy flourished. Org charts calcified the organization into neat little boxes and standardization, consistency and minimizing disruption were the primary focus.

And now, here we are. In an entirely new world. We are in an age where our industrial era organizations simply don’t work. Where we need new models, new skills and new ways of working. Where small and nimble is a competitive advantage. Where tried and true products are passé. Where speed matters. Where it’s imperative to innovate.

Now, innovation is a HUGE topic – and a deep one. So for this post I’d like to share with you four ways organizations are fostering innovation.

Top performing organizations in the 21st century:

  • Treat innovation as a business process
  • Foster the skill of creativity
  • Connect with their customers
  •  Collaborate

Each of these are big topics, so for the sake of brevity I’ll provide a brief description and some questions to consider for each.

Innovation as a Business Process.

There is a process to innovation, in spite of the belief by some that innovating is a “loosey goosey” thing somebody does in R&D. Just ask IDEO. Smart companies know the process and incorporate it into all the other processes we know so well: Finance, Accounting, HR, Sales…  Innovation is not isolated nor the sole function of the forgotten folks in R&D. It is embedded in the organization, provided resources and a path from innovation to production.

We can no longer afford to sort the world into the “business types” (think rational, linear, predictable) and the “creatives” (think intuitive, edgy, and free flowing). Innovative companies don’t exhort their employees to innovate; they have structures in place, resources identified, and processes to follow. Just as accounting, HR, engineering and operations are defined – so can innovation.

You might ask:

  • Where does innovation happen in your company (if at all)?
  • Are there dedicated resources for innovation?
  • Who is your company is charged to innovate?
  • What was the last innovation your company implemented?
  • What is in your innovation pipeline?

CREATIVITY AS A SKILL

It took me 5 long years to get my MBA at the Krannert School of Management. I spent 14 years in a Fortune 200 company. And at no time in no way did the notion of creating something important in business get much attention. It was not taught, even though it is a process that can be taught. It was not encouraged, measured, or rewarded.

I think that we’d all agree that the many business geniuses are terribly creative – from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs to Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos. Our problem is not embracing creativity at the top. The problem is that we’ve driven creativity out of the middle ranks by such a strong focus on left-brained business management. Management by the numbers and a sole focus on short-term financials. We’re out of balance. We need to find ways to balance the creative with the effective management – and do it quickly.

We need to think of creativity as a business skill needed throughout the organization. Skills that are used every day by everyone, not just at the top. Not just when we are in crisis. Not just the folks in the R&D department. We need to learn the process of creating and create organizational structures that foster creativity. Period.

You might ask:

  • Who is charged to be creative in your organization?
  • Are the skills of creativity seen as a core competency? Taught? Supported?
  • What happens when creative ideas emerge?
  • Are there process in place to:
    • Generate many ideas, rather than a few
    • Test those ideas in the market
    • Vet those ideas thoroughly
    • Move the best ideas into your day-to-day operations
  • Diversity fuels creativity. How are diverse people, ideas, cultures and perspectives encouraged?
  • Creativity requires space, time, and freedom to dream. Is your organization so focused on productivity that there is no time to create?

CONNECT

It seems that the more high tech we become, the more high touch we crave. One size does not fit all any longer. Consumers want personalized. They want to be understood. To be connected with on an emotional level.

In all areas of business today – connecting with those that we provide goods and services to is critical. The creativity needed in today’s business world is not random, not just “edgy” for the sake of “edginess” – but creative innovations that speak to a need. It is not creativity for the sake of creating alone – but creating based on connection with your current customers, your future customers, and perhaps customers you can’t even imagine right now.

Great questions to ask about your ability to connect include:

  • How often do you interact with the people that use your goods and services?
  • Is that time spent merely trying to sell them (or service) what you already have or is it talking and listening and observing what they need?
  • How much do you use human centered design in your organization?
  • To what extent do you focus on your WHY rather than your features and benefits?
  • People connect emotionally. To what extent do you communicate and connect emotionally as well as rationally?
  • How “whole brained” are you? Do you rely on sheer left-brain (logical/rational/linear) or also use right-brained thinking (intuitive/non-linear/emergent).

COLLABORATE

If you recall, I mentioned that competition was the order of the day in industrial era organizations. As I worked for 13 + years in a Fortune 200 company – collaboration was at best frowned upon, and most often discouraged. It was discouraged both inside and outside the organization for fear of giving up information or ideas, or perhaps enabling someone else to take advantage of us or do better than us. Go to a conference? No way – we have training inside! Invite other departments to help solve a problem? No way – it will signal that we don’t have all the answers. Collaborate with a sister division with a new customer? Unheard of – what if their numbers are better than ours.

Now in hindsight, it seems a bit ridiculous. But it was real. And it IS real. In so many of the organizations I work with, people are tightly bound into their functional “silos”. Unable to see across the company as a bigger picture. Each functional area only out for the benefit of their own. Truly the parts more important than the whole.

21st century organizations know that even if they could be self-sustaining, that doing so would take way too long and would take too many resources. They know that knowledge is growing so quickly that they can’t be an expert in it all – so they find ways to collaborate with the expertise they need.

Emerging Networks

Networks are emerging much like the way we organize ourselves – a bit messier, a lot less linear, and a whole lot more powerful. A great case study is Airbnb, who has taken collaboration to an entirely new level. Tech innovation and the power of networks has propelled Airbnb to surpass the valuation of Hilton and Hyatt COMBINED. That valuation in spite of the fact that Airbnb owns no property or real estate. Airbnb’s valuation is based on its ability to innovate, its network, and its ability to connect with people who either have space to rent or need to rent space.

Questions about Collaboration

Collaboration fuels new ideas and it requires diversity. Collaboration can share the costs and rewards of bringing new products and services to market, yet requires discarding our ego’s desire to know it all and control it all. Collaboration can provide us quick access to resources and as such, shortens the time to do something innovative. But it also requires us to leave behind some of our old thinking about competition, control and certainty.

Some questions to ponder about collaboration:

  • Are employees in your organization encouraged to interact and collaborate across functions?
  • To what extent are employees encouraged to get outside the walls of the business and forge relationships with those outside?
  • Are there strategic partners you collaborate with?
  • How much internal competition exists? Within departments? Across departments and functional units?
  • How is collaboration nurtured? Supported? Encouraged?

Responding to today’s environment requires us to think about business in a different light. Where innovation exists alongside optimization. Where business skills and thinking are a blend of left and right brained activity. Where we get comfortable with the joy of creating, the emotion of connecting, and the powerful output of networks and collaborations.

These forces of change are not abating any time soon, so we are faced with the imperative choice to innovate or to stagnate. To change or die.

I know what side I’m on!

When Collaborating Stinks

Those like me – that like to collaborate – love the interaction, the new and improved ideas, the way a group will generate better solutions and then “own” them. Others detest the amount of extra time it takes to collaborate, the loss of control over the outcome, the fact that their ideas may not be those implemented, and the general messiness of the process.

For all those reasons, both the love and the hate, knowing when to collaborate and when to direct is critical.

COLLABORATE WHEN: DIRECT WHEN:
  • There is no known or proven answer (there is a need to innovate)
  • The best approach is known
  • You need to build engagement and buy-in
  • There will be little to no resistance
  • There are many stakeholders with diverse needs and expectations
  • Fewer stakeholders are involved
  • You need creativity and innovation
  • You are forced to do something due to rules, regulations or compliance needs (although you might collaborate on how to do these things more efficiently)
  • It is a game changer for something that really matters
  • Outcomes impact areas of lesser importance
  • You are looking for a longer term outcome
  • It is an emergency, to get people moving in the same direction quickly, or time is short
  • There are many ways to approach the situation
  • Time and resources are limited or need to be focused on something more important
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