In a PBS interview, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock described the magic of collaboration as he learned it in his twenties while travelling with improvisational genius Miles Davis. During one performance, Hancock remembered feeling a unique connection with the band, the crowd, the overall vibe. The juices were flowing. Suddenly, loudly, Hancock played a chord that was completely wrong. He panicked. Miles Davis took a breath, and then improvised a series of notes that “made the chord right.”

In that moment, Hancock realized what distinguished Davis from all others — he never heard a chord as being “wrong.” Rather, he heard it as something new. As a leader, Davis created an environment where “mistakes” weren’t mistakes at all. They were new ideas that might lead to something amazing. He didn’t judge prematurely, but instead chose to interact with his fellow musicians in a way that made them look, and sound, brilliant.

Effective cross-functional collaboration is a leadership imperative in every organization I work with. There are more collaborative meetings than ever. And the number of people attending them, and the diversity of perspectives they represent, are growing. Unfortunately, our skill at working collaboratively is not expanding at the same rate. One problem is that effective collaboration requires a mindset contradictory to the one for which many leaders have been rewarded and promoted. Specifically, many leaders have climbed the ladder on the strength of their decisiveness, independent thinking, and bias for action.

Collaboration requires time, patience, and at times, the discipline to listen for the music behind the words. Most executives I know have precious little time for anything that won’t produce a tangible result, quickly. Efficiency and urgency are key. Consequently, busy executives rely too heavily on their immediate judgments and the “certainty of knowing” derived from past experiences.

This false sense of certainty introduces more risk now than ever. With the speed and complexity of today’s environment, personal experience exceeding three years is no longer a distinct advantage.  One person, super-bright and experienced, is still inadequate to have all the resources and information needed to make wise decisions independently.

I’ve had the privilege of working with some very collaborative leaders in the last ten years. Similar to their more traditional counterparts, these leaders are decisive and independent. However, unlike many, when it is time to collaborate I consistently observe a noticeable and effective shift in their orientation.

Here are a few of the best practices that have most impacted me when working with these talented maestros.  Great collaborators do the following:

  • Make it clear when they are collaborating. They have no intention for every interaction be collaborative. But when it is time to orchestrate something special, they put their partners on notice and invite everyone into a “different” mindset. In addition, they plan meetings differently when they know that collaboration is required.    When a meeting exceeds seven participants, a collaboration strategy is crafted in advance to ensure that everyone is empowered to ‘take a solo’ while singing from the same sheet of music.
  • Listen differently.  Imagine you are singing a song with someone, crafting it while you sing it.  The current line your partner is singing must inspire your next line. This requires deep listening with no preconceived notion of where you are about to go. Great collaborators trust that inspiration comes from listening deeply to others while holding intrusive thoughts at bay.
  •  Make their partners look good. They take all contributions seriously, and encourage others to search for the gem of brilliance embedded in even the oddest of ideas. They also demonstrate delight when faced with novelty of any kind, especially ideas they don’t understand.  Like Miles, they “make the chord right.”
  • Share credit when due and NOT due. When others inspire them, they acknowledge the link between others’ contributions and the resulting idea.  They demonstrate pride in others’ contributions as much as they do their own. Some collaborators give credit even when their inspiration came from something they mistakenly thought someone was going to say, but didn’t!  This generosity of spirit creates a crescendo of trust and desire to contribute.

Today’s organizations require the innovation of a jazz combo executed through the complexity of an orchestra. Though creativity can live within an individual, it is creative collaboration with others that produces innovation. Most leaders have mastered the art of playing their instrument and leading the band.  The next frontier is to more effectively jam with their colleagues, producing music nobody has yet heard.

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