Surviving success: Preserve collaboration


We all want our organizations to thrive and succeed, but success often brings with it new challenges. With success, comes growth, and with growth, comes complexity. At their inception, companies tend to be nimble, quick, and tight-knit. Small teams of like-minded people can work quickly to solve problems and make decisions. People have intimate familiarity with each other and their shared goals. As organizations become larger and more complex, they tend to become slower and more cumbersome. In his recent TEDTalk, Yves Morieux asserts that two problems organizations grapple with – productivity and engagement – have the same root cause, which is reduced cooperation. Because collaboration requires high levels of cooperation (as well as high levels of assertiveness), collaboration is likely to suffer as an organization grows. This is a problem, because collaboration is a key driver of business performance, innovation, and productivity.

As described in this piece, research does show that collaboration is diminished when people work in groups greater than twenty people. Individuals are less likely to share knowledge and resources and to help each other overcome obstacles. People may not feel the same pressure to pitch in when there are numerous others available to do so. When people don’t know each other well, they may not be as willing to push back on one another or assert their ideas. Sometimes collaboration is road blocked by well-intentioned org structures, policies, and procedures. What can be done to ensure people still have the willingness and ability to cooperate and collaborate, even as the organization grows in size and complexity?

Foster Relationships. We have touched on the importance of thoughtfully handling the social fabric of organizations in prior posts – in large numbers, people are at risk for a number of social processing errors that conspire to create a sense of “otherness” that quashes collaboration. Among his rules for managing complexity and increasing cooperation, Yves Morieux includes “understanding what others do.” People need to know more than one another’s names and job titles – they should know what they do and how they contribute to the organization. Familiarity is also foundational for trust, which is an important ingredient of effective collaboration (see this post). Giving people a chance to get to know one another helps build a sense of community in which collaboration naturally grows. The Royal Bank of Scotland facilitates this familiarity through the structure of the physical work environment. The main headquarters is designed to be like a small town, which allows people to get to know one another informally in social settings as well as while working. Other attempts to bring people together in relaxed social settings can yield the same results.

Lead by example. More than anything else, the behavior of organizational leaders sets the stage for the company’s culture. If there is ever a disconnect between a company’s mission, vision, or values statement and employee behavior, someone at the top is not walking the talk. A leadership team that models teamwork and collaboration is going to see it reflected in the ranks. Through their own behavior, leaders communicate loudly to employees about the kind of behavior that is going to be rewarded by the company. Researchers Gratton and Erickson describe how Standard Charter’s leaders not only collaborate remarkably well, they spotlight its importance to employees by showcasing photos of themselves working together in job sites across the organizatioon.

Build skills. True collaboration demands high levels of cooperation and high levels of assertiveness – a balance of divergent skills, applied adaptively across situations. People need to demonstrate confidence and humility; to be able to effective assert their own ideas and simultaneously be open to the ideas of others; to be confident enough to stand up for good ideas for the sake of the organization but be willing to back down if someone has a better idea. People need strong communication, conflict, negotiation, listening, and interpersonal skills; they need to know how to network and create partnerships; they need to be able to give and receive feedback non-defensively. A business that wants to build a thriving culture of collaboration must invest in developing these skills in employees.

Efforts to support collaboration in organizations contributes value because when people cooperate and collaborate they are more efficient and use fewer resources. They generate more and better results than people who have to slog through hierarchies and red tape or who find themselves engaged in petty turf wars due to competing concerns. Working with people you understand and respect is also more enjoyable – when people understand each other and how their work, together, creates results, they are more likely to be engaged in their work and committed to the organization. Collaboration – co-laboring – isn’t just a fad concept, it is a way of working that creates and maintains success.

“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” —Charles Darwin