Every client I work with complains that they need more effective cross-organizational collaboration. They say that collaboration is more crucial than ever, due to increasingly complex environments and the speed of change. Yet people still work in their silos and spend more time competing than collaborating. As I listen to their grumbling, I wonder, “Why are we still dealing with this?” After all, the need for cross-organizational collaboration wasn’t invented yesterday.
In my three decades of helping different kinds of organizations improve their collaborative efforts, I’ve arrived at five best practices, or Robert’s Rules of Collaboration. These rules resonate most with my clients, and lead to better outcomes:
Find the Unified Goal:
Most people think they are collaborating when they are not; they are usually negotiating. Negotiation is important and can lead to productive outcomes. But collaboration is different. You begin a negotiation with your own position, and you try to learn the other party’s position. Effective collaboration first requires a unified goal to which everyone commits. Collaboration answers the question, “what are we trying to create together that neither of us can create alone?”
If the first stages of your collaboration include a lot of statements that begin, “I need…” you are probably in a negotiation and not realizing it. Effective collaboration always starts with a unified goal, and everyone has ‘skin in the game.’
Best practice: Determine if the situation requires negotiation or collaboration – if it really is collaboration, don’t start until you define the unified goal.
Level the Playing Field:
Some departments have more power than others. Marketing often has more influence than Sales. Sales usually has more power than Human Resources. And Legal, often considered the department of “no,” usually has more power than them all.
When the power differential is high, there is a tendency for the ‘weaker’ department to defer to the more powerful. This results in cooperation (serving someone else’s interest), but not collaboration. Until collaborative partners acknowledge their mutual dependence and work to equalize their power, the collaborative process will feel one-sided. In a true collaboration both sides feel powerful enough to influence the process.
Best Practice: If you are contributing much more than your partner, but mostly in service of their needs, recognize that you are not collaborating; you are cooperating, and challenge the dynamic.
Address Your Partner’s Needs:
As Edgar Schein points out in his book Process Consultation, when people come together to collaborate, their first concerns are not with the task, but with getting their personal needs met. Under the surface of our interactions sit concerns about control (i.e., will I have influence here?), acceptance (i.e., will my contribution be appreciated?), and identity (i.e., does collaborating with you require me to sacrifice my allegiance to my own team?). When these concerns are not addressed people tend to withdraw or become more aggressive.
We often jump into collaborative initiatives without understanding what is really driving people. Ironically, most of us don’t even reflect on our own motives!
Best Practice: Ask yourself what makes your collaborative partners tick; do you understand their motivations and anxieties? Do you understand your own? If not, start learning these and your collaboration will improve.
Cover Your Back(side):
Most people in cross-organizational collaborative initiatives represent their specific functions. While immersed in their collaboration, they often find that progress can only be made if their own department changes procedures or invests in new processes to support the collaboration. At these crucial moments, the last thing you want to hear (or say) is, “That won’t fly with my group.”
This reaction defeats the purpose of the collaboration and immediately puts an end to the conversation. The most effective collaborators I’ve worked with constantly brief and influence their own departments on behalf of the collaboration.
Best Practice: Invest more time preparing your departmental stakeholders about the collaborative effort and the changes that will be required. If you don’t, get ready for disappointment.
Everyone Earns a Trophy:
When I am teaching collaborative mind-sets and practices, I always pose this question: “Are you as focused on ensuring the personal success of your collaborative partners as you are on your own success?” When I ask this question people first look at me with blank expressions, then they look away, then they usually murmur, “I wonder what would make them feel successful?”
In my experience this is the variable that best predicts whether a cross-organizational collaboration will be successful or not.
Best Practice: Focus as much on your collaborative partner’s personal success as your own, and be satisfied only when they are satisfied with both the outcome, and with how they contributed to it.
So before you join the chorus of complaints about your organization’s lack of collaboration, try putting some of these practices to work – there’s a good chance you’ll become a role model of of effective collaboration.