Today’s business problems are more complex than ever. Think of the interplay between climate change and supply chain risk, or inflation’s effects on fickle consumer behavior. Tackling those kinds of challenges requires people with different expertise and varying experiences to team up across organizational silos. Done right, what we call “smarter collaboration” produces more innovative, holistic solutions than anyone could achieve on their own. Our research over the last decade at Harvard University shows that companies engaging in smarter collaboration achieve higher revenue and profits, deeper and longer-lasting customer relationships, and faster innovation. They’re also significantly better at attracting, engaging and retaining top talent.
But collaborating across silos is usually far more difficult than it sounds. In a fast-changing company, people might not know (or trust) each other’s skill sets. Or they are thrust onto new and exciting projects that leave them little time to even think about collaboration — let alone do it. And we find that one of the most significant barriers is an employee’s lack of confidence in their own ability to collaborate effectively: they are afraid they will disappoint their clients or colleagues, so they just hunker down and do things the same old way.
One piece of good news about this prominent barrier is that it can be addressed completely with the right program. This article lays out a starting point for building smarter collaboration capabilities in your organization: offering a two-step program that will lead to a significant return on investment (ROI). ROI is of utmost importance, particularly during challenging economic times when learning and development (L&D) budgets and programs are under scrutiny.
1. Senior Leader Training: Hold a Collaboration Academy
My team at Gardner & Co. and I recommend holding a “collaboration academy,” initially aimed at senior leaders. While the ideal is having the broadest possible base of collaborative skills in your company, you can’t fundamentally change its orientation without first getting the leaders on board. Leaders need the right collaborative mindsets, behaviors and capabilities to carry out their role in executing the desired changes. Among those behaviors is modeling and instilling collaboration in others. The kick-off for a collaboration academy is most often a formal multi-day program, with learning modules focused on collaboration as an enabling capability.
Here are some recommended components of this academy:
Setting the scene: collaboration as a means to an end.
A key initial part of this academy should be reinforcing that collaboration is a means to an end, not an aim in itself. Too many people think “teaming” is great, but instead they need to learn how and when it is worth the time and effort. Truly smarter collaboration is hyper-intentional. Zero in on the desired outcome: Is it better customer service, greater market share, improved employee engagement, higher patient satisfaction rates? Then dissect that outcome to figure out what kinds of expertise would truly add significant value. What perspectives would shift the dialogue? Which kinds of experiences would prompt deeper understanding of risks and opportunities?
Smart collaboration in action.
What does smart collaboration look like in the real world? This part of the academy could focus on case studies showing how collaboration achieved the desired goals. What were the overarching company objectives, who was the client, what did they need, who was pulled into the project, when where they brought on, how did each person contribute and what were the results? These are just a few things the audience will want to know.
Avoiding the pitfalls.
Practicing smart collaboration also means avoiding the traps. For example, leaders must watch out for overcommitment themselves to projects or collaborative ventures. If people are on too many initiatives, leaders must step in and make some pragmatic decisions. These actions speak loudly: People learn as much through observing collaboration in action as they do from formal training.
Creating a safe space.
Another component should be how to create a safe space for everyone to try new behaviors. Committing to new collaborative behaviors means little if people don’t feel safe trying them out. Think about your company culture and whether — for instance — leaders share stories about mistakes they have made. When it’s clear that no one is expected to be perfect, or get things right on the first pass, people are more likely to step out of their comfort zone and experiment. Related to this notion is whether people feel comfortable giving honest feedback to colleagues: When you sense that honesty and communication are valued, you are less likely to second-guess your actions.
Committing to action.
At the end of the collaboration academy, leaders will have lots of ideas of how to perform better at their job. But the sheer abundance of these ideas can make them difficult to retain and they end up forgetting them all. Our research shows that the more effective approach is having people commit to two or three changes in the next few days. In the area of collaboration, this could mean — for example — crafting an elevator pitch about your strengths, having coffee with a new colleague each week or being more intentional about who you invite to meetings. And then pair up with an accountability partner to make sure you (and they) follow through.
2. Mid-manager Training: Build a Broader Base of Collaborative Skills
The collaboration academy most likely won’t touch everyone in the company, but it can start a groundswell for people to not only hold others accountable for different collaboration standards but also coach people on how to build smarter collaboration capabilities. Knowing how to peer counsel and embracing a particular cohort in the company for this effort could really help spark collaborative behavior. In one particular insurance and financial services firm my colleagues and I examined, human resources (HR) provided the platform and infrastructure for leaders to train their colleagues while the leaders initiated the activity, developed the content, and delivered the program.
Collaboration-specific training is not the only option. No matter what the training topic, you can embed group work into the curriculum. This way, participants apply the specific course content while practicing critical team skills — for example, leading without authority, holding difficult conversations and so on. Ideally, cohorts are assembled in a way that encourages the bonds formed during the course to carry over to real work. One way that groups could work together is by running simulations, so that participants are not only exposed to concepts but engage in actual decision-making, team launches, conflict resolution and other key collaborative skills.
Here are some possible areas for skills building:
Empower colleagues to communicate their collaborative value.
People must learn how to communicate their particular skill set (or collaborative value) to their colleagues or external business partners. Whether they deliver a carefully crafted elevator pitch when meeting someone new or regularly remind colleagues of their strengths and favorite kinds of work, they are paving the way for future smart collaborations. In other words, it’s more likely that others will intentionally leverage their specific mix of views, capabilities and knowledge.
Foster conflict resolution skills.
By definition, smart collaboration means you’re working with people who have different perspectives and professional domains and interests. Conflict will inevitably arise. People need to know how to handle this tension productively — and even embrace it. Instead of reacting defensively, they can view it as creative tension they can harness to come up with something new. Simulations work great for this kind of workshop, providing a kind of practice arena for growing one’s skills.
Teach techniques for agility.
Working with multiple professionals on a complex issue breeds ambiguity. Leaders and even front-line employees need to remain focused and effective, even when things are unclear and uncertain — seeing this lack of clarity as an opportunity for development and growth. Through this module, they can learn techniques for growing agility: like keeping a pulse on their quick-changing industry, learning how to pivot immediately and leading others through change.
Help people self-assess.
Another valuable module is training people on how to not only assess their collaboration-related behavioral tendencies but also be continually aware of these leanings. Then, when crises or day-to-day challenges arise, they can take a step back, recognize what their natural reactions are and then make the best decision based on the problem at hand (including other individuals’ apparent behavioral tendencies).
These are a few ways of that learning professionals can build their smarter collaboration capabilities and help others do the same for a higher-performing, and more aligned, workforce.