Nine rules for successful collaboration

The word “collaboration” may be equivalent to the overused and ‘80s-tastic  phrase “think outside the box,” but I’m a believer in the term - and the concept. 

It’s not because 75 per cent of CEOs in the IBM 2012 Global CEO Study believe collaboration is key to future success. Or because every other business book is taking a stand on it. It’s simply because collaboration is one of the most transformative activities I’ve witnessed through my firm’s innovation work with global organisations.

Most of the large companies we’ve encountered over the past decade still operate as siloed structures. By design, silos prevent information from flowing outward, and discourage any outsiders from building on insular ideas. While cubicle farms may convey efficiency, they also prevent cross-pollination and dialogue across a business.

But productive collaboration isn’t about swapping the cubicles for an open-plan setting. Nor is it about adding a layer of meaningless tasks or meetings. It’s about people working together, creating together and achieving common goals together. It should fit organically into employees’ workflow and streamline the process of getting projects across the finish line.

While the checklist below offers nine ways to effectively spread collaboration throughout your business, decide first what you hope to achieve through it. Choose a few methods that speak to your goals and, like any initiative, establish hard metrics to compare results against. In other words, how long does it currently take your company to bring a product or service from concept to market? How many feedback loops in the process? How much time is spent on customer support? How much is lost through duplication of work?

Armed with baselines, you can see where collaboration is needed in your business and which tips will best serve your purposes. 

1. Staff projects with unlikely suspects. Teaming up people from unrelated departments at every level of the organisation increases opportunities for fresh ideas and connections.

2. Create a physical space for face time. Walls between offices hinder conversation, but a common area in the office encourages employees across roles and functions to interact.

3. Reward people for not doing things. Encourage employees to work smarter - not harder - by collectively rewarding teams that reduce unnecessary processes, reports, or paperwork.

4. Identify and include dissenters. Invite people with contrary ideas - outspoken employees, disgruntled customers, etc. - to propose solutions for your trouble spots.

5. Implement a user-friendly collaboration platform. Experiment with programs that enable file-sharing, multi-user editing and progress-tracking across departments - and the world.

6. Designate a connector. Smash silos between divisions by assigning an extrovert in your organisation to act as an official connector. This person should actively track innovation activities across departments and connect people whose experience or capability matches a project need.

7. Compile quarterly learning lists. After every project, make a list of evident mistakes and lessons (without assigning individual blame). Share the list across the organisation every quarter to ensure the errors aren’t repeated.

8. Hire proven collaborators. Which collaborative qualities are lacking in your organisation? Do you need more people with interpersonal skills? More negotiators? Enthusiastic cooperators? Make a list of your needs and hire individuals who possess these skills.

9. Dedicate budgets to collaborative projects.Allocating funds is the ultimate indicator to employees that senior management is serious about collaboration. 

When collaboration is effective, it brings together employees whose expertise can benefit one another and the company. As your own collaboration effort moves forward, note soft metrics like the level of cross-functional participation on projects, and communication between departments and regions. When these silos open up, opportunities will increase for ideas to become actual solutions. And yes, should you find yourself joining the cult of collaboration, I will cheerfully accept the blame.

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