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The 1+1=10 collaboration equation

One of best lessons I have learned is the powerful impact collaboration has on success, both the collaboration that comes from working well internally but also with customers.

I want to talk about internal collaboration first because we know that when people work together with trust and respect they are more creative, productive and take more risks. Conversely, in a critical environment people shut down to feedback and one another and are not just less likely to experiment but stop helping one another too.

In other words, collaboration is the life blood of a healthy organization.

Collaboration is not a synonym for cooperation

In my experience people use the word collaboration without necessarily having a shared understanding of what it means.

One person may think collaborating means asking a peer for input, for another, it means ensuring that on any critical project there’s a representative from every area of the business.

While that sounds good in theory it can be clunky and unproductive. Just because good things come from working across silos it doesn’t mean that every project no matter how big or small requires a multi-disciplinary team.

Many people confuse collaboration with cooperation, believing that if they’re nice to one another and share information openly they are collaborating.

But collaborating is something different.

It’s when you share a common goal, underpinned by a clear sense of purpose and establish teams and mechanisms to harness it.

There’s little doubt that no matter how smart any one of us is as an individual, we are smarter together. But just throwing a group of talented people around the same table will not bring out those talents. You must leverage complementary strengths.

Importantly you also need to be working on an issue that requires collaboration and usually that’s when you’re trying to solve a problem or generate options that requires the integration of expertise that no single person can provide.

Not every issue you are working on requires a multi-disciplinary team.

Once everyone can nod their heads and agree on what it means to collaborate, you must provide ways to create and maintain it. If you don’t then you create a culture in which collaboration is an abstract. You want it to be real.

So how do you translate it into systems, process and programs?

Start with why, move to how

To start you must clear about your why, often called your brand purpose because it sets a common agenda and set of goals for everyone in the business. Everyone should be clear about your place in the market, who your customers are and why they would be devastated if you fell off the map.

Once that’s clear, there is a simple process that you can work through to ‘operationalise’.

  1. Set the collective agenda – when everyone knows what you’re aiming for or specifically what problem you’re trying to solve then all energies can be clearly directed at the goal. It sounds simple but many managers don’t take the time required to define where they are headed. For example, if your goal is to reward loyalty then a program that gives new customers a stronger deal over existing customers may not align with the collective agenda.
  2. Map the plan – once you’ve decided on an approach you need a clear plan with responsibilities and timeframes that everyone in the team adheres to. The plan should coordinate ‘mutually reinforcing’ activities, at which each member of the team excels.
  3. Measure true outcomes – it is important to value and reward behaviour and not just output, How the team functions together contributes hugely to the culture and willingness to be part of future teams. It’s also important to remember that the journey is just as important as the destination. If you’re going to encourage people to take risks then you must accept that there will be fails.
  4. Communication – communication is critical for teams to develop a sense of trust. I’m also a fan of encouraging healthy disagreement to check group think and identify difficulties early on. If people can air views and thrash out the best approach they’re likely to work more cohesively. I found getting people to adopt an alternative position to their own helps them see that there is never just one right answer.

Similarly, nothing undermines collaboration more than a feeling of not being heard or a festering resentment. If something is frustrating you, let the appropriate people know. Manage it respectfully, quickly and transparently. The more this kind of healthy exchange happens, the easier it becomes. When disagreements are dealt with openly, they usually disappear quickly. An honest disagreement can build trust because the aggrieved parties end up with more respect for each other. Have a framework in place for making this happen.

Internal social media, also called enterprise social networks, can be a powerful way to share information and learnings and enable people to get to know one another better and stay connected beyond the physical or time boundaries of ‘at work’.

Collaborating with customers

Companies that collaborate with customers smash the traditional boundaries and push product categories, often carving out a successful niche.

It can be tough to achieve and sustain but technology is making it easier.

One door that’s open is using social media channels, which gives everyone in the business a direct line to customers. However, social media is more than just a customer service channel. Use it to listen to what people do and don’t like and not just about your own brand, but the industry or environment. If an idea is valuable, let them know, use it if you can. Share the content that customers put out. Draw them into the organisation.

Social media can be particularly powerful for executives if it’s done well – that is – with genuine engagement and personality. Two thirds of customer’s trust companies more if the CEO is social.

Being part of creating something larger than ourselves that connects us to people and purpose brings a sense of career satisfaction and strong culture.

Be yourself, don’t fake it. 

Finally, be yourself. How does this impact collaboration? Because it makes you human and people will trust you.

This is my mantra. And it’s the mantra of every successful person I know. Why? Because we see what happens when people aren’t themselves. I know myself that if I am not being authentic I don’t deliver to the same level. Sustained, collaborative success can’t be manufactured, it comes from being true to yourself. If you have weakness in one element of your project, or are intimidated by another part, just say it. Know your personal blind spots. Pretending you know more than you do is a sure recipe for failure.

Collaboration depends on you bringing your best self to the effort every day in every way. In my experience, when people are true to themselves and true to the team, amazing things happen.

Rachel Kelly, CEO The Retail Collective, former global CEO of T2Tea

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