Five ways to build a collaborative culture in your organisation

We need collaboration to innovate. The sharing of ideas leads to more new ideas forming. From there, we build and continue to introduce new modes of thought, insights and imagination. Most see collaboration as essential to a functioning business. In fact, 86% of executives and employees point to a lack of collaboration as the main reason behind business failures. The question is how do you move from just talking about it, to taking action that gets results?

Every business has a complex ecosystem. There may be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of individuals within the organisation. Each has their own goals and mindsets. Those individuals then get segmented into separate business units. Again each of these has its own goals and forms its own unique culture.

Success in this environment involves finding a way to bring all those parts together and create a culture of collaboration between these people and disparate units. The modern workplace cannot operate, and initiatives cannot be successful without drawing on people, skills and capabilities from various business units.

In order for initiatives to have the best possible chance of success, you need to achieve alignment within your teams. Your goal is to find a way to mesh each individual unit’s goals into a collective vision.

Here, I’m going to show you five tips that will help you.

1. Establish the higher level intent

Everyone within your cross-functional initiative must understand the higher level intent. But what does that mean? Establishing higher level intent requires more than telling people what to do. You need to establish the “why”.

In his book The Art of Action, Stephen Bungay discusses the concept of establishing higher level intent.

He says, “Keep it simple. Don’t tell people what to do and how to do it. Instead, be as clear as you can about your intentions. Say what you want people to achieve and, above all, tell them why. Then ask them to tell you what they are going to do as a result.”

You’re making the initiative’s intent clear from the very beginning. The effect is that you get all of these disparate units onto the same page.

Bungay also mentions getting your people to tell you what they’re going to do. In doing this, you’re encouraging communication and the sharing of ideas. That’s the first step to building a collaborative environment. You outline an intent and the team responds by sharing ideas on how to achieve that intent.

2. Set constraints

You may assume that establishing constraints has the opposite effect to what you’re looking for. After all, constraints must harm creativity, which stalls innovation, right?

My observations suggest that this isn’t the case. Unbridled creativity creates a well-spring of half-formed ideas that are often too grandiose and complex in nature to reach fruition in any reasonable timeframe. You are often left with great concepts that, when socialised, may get a great buzz. However, they leave the people that need to implement these concepts shaking or, even worse, scratching their heads pondering how divorced they are from reality.

I’ve found that establishing constraints provides a useful framework that empowers teams. It helps them to really focus on the higher intent, and forces creative solutions to emerge that can navigate the complexity that exists today.

With constraints in place, you focus a team’s efforts on the ideas that actually help it to achieve its intent.

3. Encourage diversity of thought

It’s important to remember that your business units are differing teams with their own established norms and cultures. That’s an idea that many people within an organisation struggle to come to grips with. They assume that all other units operate like theirs. After all, they’re all a part of the same organisation.

Additionally, at the individual level every person sees the world differently. The pressures and issues that affect you may not affect somebody else. Each unit has its own culture. Each individual has their own goals, experiences, and belief systems. That means each individual has a unique perspective to lend to an initiative.

A key finding from a recent Forbes Insights survey of 300 key senior executives from organisations with revenue above $500M USD found that they understand the importance of diversity.

It says: “Senior executives are recognising that a diverse set of experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds is crucial to innovation and the development of new ideas.”

“When asked about the relationship between diversity and innovation, a majority of respondents agreed that diversity is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that foster innovation.

It is important to always maintain diversity within all of your key initiatives. You should aim for diversity of intellectual property, experience, ethnicity, and gender because these are the ingredients that, when mixed together, result in innovation.

4. Ensure psychological safety

A truly collaborative culture encourages this diversity of thought. It calls on business units and individuals to observe one another. Through that, they can see the issues that others deal with. At its basic level, this means that each individual needs to feel safe from the fear of reprisal. You need to eliminate any thoughts that sharing a “bad” idea could hinder that person’s career advancement.

Google’s studies into creating effective teams elaborate on this concept. They created Project Aristotle to establish the factors that determine the success of a team.

They found that great teams operate on trust, which in turn creates psychological safety. As the study puts it: “In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”

A fear of punishment prevents collaboration. People don’t feel secure enough to share their ideas, which hampers innovation. You must establish norms for the team that discourage negative behaviour.

Discussion must involve active engagement on all levels. Every member must listen intently and demonstrate that they understand the ideas that other team members raise. Responses shouldn’t be geared around finding what’s “wrong” with the idea. Instead, the team must collaborate to iron out any kinks and come to a mutual agreement on whether the idea can become a viable solution.

This encourages people to take risks and share their ideas more readily. Of course, not every idea will get implemented. But that doesn’t mean that the team should attack any ideas just because they don’t see how they’ll work. Effective communication involves building on all ideas to come to solutions.

Through all of this, you establish trust at every level of the team. This improves the psychological safety felt by every team member.

5. Foster transparency

According to the 2017 State of the Global Workplace report from Gallup, 85% of people don’t feel engaged in the workplace.

Disengaged people don’t care about your organisation’s vision. That has a severe effect when you’re trying to establish a collaborative culture. A disengaged person, whether knowingly or not, can throw up roadblocks for the rest of the team.

There is all sorts of advice out there on how to keep people engaged. However, I’ve found that transparency is the most effective tool in regard to building a collaborative culture.

Lack of transparency results in disengagement, which negatively affects collaboration. Encouraging openness at all levels of your organisation is key to overcoming this barrier.

Be very transparent with the organisation’s strategic intent, its mission, and the values people should espouse. Do the same for the business model, the decision making process, and the drivers behind the decision making framework.

A transparent environment makes people more likely to speak up when they see issues. It also means they’re more willing to share their ideas with the rest of the team. This, in turn, makes people feel like they’re contributing, which increases engagement.

Building blocks for collaboration

Use these tips to create a culture of collaboration within your organisation and its teams.

Establish a higher intent and ensure that each unit and individual understands it. Encourage discussion and create psychological safety. Ensure that each individual feels comfortable in sharing opinions.

Ensure transparency at every level of the organisation. This ensures engagement within your teams. Finally, encourage diversity of thought. Help each individual understand the goals of the other individuals and units within the organisation. From there, you can set constraints that take all of these goals into account while challenging your people to execute to your higher intent.

2 comments

  • Elias Boutros

    Such a great read. I can map almost everything you’ve mentioned to real scenarios and experience. You’ve summed it up really well. Thanks Paul.

  • Takis Diakoumis

    Quite a timely read for us here. We are currently re-evaluating our goals and more clearly defining our WHY. With offices globally and expanding, it’s tricky to continue to align all those different units into a single cohesive message while still acknowledging and supporting the various differences across the teams. Your points on diversity of thought and psychological safety really resonate as we are finding these are key elements to help us define our values and inform our strategy with buy-in across the business at every level. Nice piece.

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