Collaboration is a big word these days – everyone wants it, most people think they are good at it, and that other people are bad at it. In reality, collaborations often fail to produce actionable outcomes, and “collaborative cultures” often translate into every decision being made by committee, with declining results and internal frustration rather than accelerated success. We even worked with a client who shared that getting asked to “collaborate” had become code for “I’m worried about the outcome and want to spread the risk, let’s possibly fail together!”
So how can you avoid those pitfalls and unlock the incredible value of positive collaboration with your colleagues, customers, suppliers, distributors, industry partners – anyone who can help create a better solution? Whether you are trying to respond to strategic market disruption challenges or managing smaller, internal improvements or changes, we believe there are six key practices you can use that will accelerate results and build a truly collaborative outcome.
- Start with purpose, not personality. This keeps the focus on solving for the need, and elevates the conversation above personal gain. It also creates discussion about lateral solutions, and helps to avoid what we call “confirmation bias”. When the purpose is clear, the personalities in the room become less relevant to the collaborative experience. This is especially important when you are bringing in people from across the value chain.
- Provide clarity on boundaries and desired outcomes. Recognize that not every collaboration is a ‘green field’ or ‘innovation’ session, nor does it need to be. Confusion will result in a chaotic experience for participants, who may fall back on politics and power positions to create clarity if it is lacking. Clarity on boundaries does not mean being artificially narrow in exploring ideas, it simply provides the framework within which collaborators are free to explore viable solutions.
- Start early and often. The further upstream in the process that you can invite collaboration and create space for people to co-create the problem statement and potential resolutions, the faster an ultimate solution will be implemented. People are able to quickly adapt their behaviors when they are a part of creating the change, rather than having the answer reported out to them, together with a checklist of ‘stuff to do’. Use collaboration to create the context for people to know what they need to do when a change is implemented.
- Don’t worry so much about consensus. People can explore ideas, disagree, and experience creative tension in hugely productive ways. In the end, people can support decisions with which they disagree if they feel their voices were heard and considered, so alignment is more important than consensus or agreement. Be grateful for the dissenters – they are the ones who will push the collaboration into new and potentially untapped value.
- Drive to a win-win outcome. When you discover a vested interest in the outcome, pause and celebrate it. Win-win doesn’t mean consensus – it means that people find unexpected value in the process and the outcomes. When suppliers or customers jump into to collaborate with you, helping them to find a value outcome gives upside all around. Identifying a win-win might also mean you need to show up as a participant in someone else’s collaboration. Do it.
- Don’t wait – do it now. Stop what you are doing and think about 5 people you could reach out to who might have unexpected input on a problem your company needs to solve. They might be internal people, or external – customer, industry players, whoever. If you don’t do it, someone else will. And when you have asked others to collaborate with you on a solution, recognize their inputs and provide them with a tangible, specific outcome. It’s like writing a thank you note – you can’t assume people know you are glad you got their gift – you have to tell them! If you’ve implemented the outcomes of the collaboration, recognize and acknowledge the contributions. If you’re heading in another direction, take the time to explain the outcome to the people who gave you their time, so they will be willing to jump in the next time.
With these six practices behind any collaboration you attempt, you can improve the experience for everyone, and accelerate the adoption of the outcomes. We know – we collaborated with our colleagues to develop them, and they are now our ‘starters’ for any collaborative work we do. Give it a try, and let us know how it goes!