Collaboration Is a Team Sport
You Need to Warm Up
By Adam Richardson
Jimmy Guterman, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, wrote about Nokia's culture of purposefully fostering a collaborative mindset as soon as someone starts at the company or moves into a new role. If we build on this idea, we'd begin to look at collaboration as a process — one with many twists and turns that unfolds over time — and we'd understand that the crucial groundwork for successful collaboration should be laid before collaborative work can begin.
First, let's ask why collaboration is so important today. The main reason is that the problems we have to solve — whether deciding company strategy or bringing an innovative offering to market — are more complex than they have ever been. They require a variety of skillsets, perspectives, and approaches to solve them, and a lot of pieces need to come together smoothly to be successful. Bringing an innovation to market especially needs a mix of left- and right-brain people — visionaries and ditch-diggers, stubborn idealists and open-minded pragmatists. All this requires collaboration.
But there are barriers to collaboration, many of which exist even before somebody arrives for their first day of work. In the US, our education system is largely focused on individual efforts, and teamwork is not actively taught in the classroom — even at the graduate level. How students and teachers at the K-12 level are incentivized tends to focus on clear goals met through individual knowledge and expertise, neither of which is realistic for the contemporary workplace.
So collaboration is not necessarily a natural leaning. Have we been educated out of collaborative habits?
Collaboration Is a Process, Not an Event
To go back to the Nokia story, the first thing to recognize about collaboration is that it is something that best happens over a period of time, with a "warm-up" period before critical work happens. Just like a runner, you don't want to do a 10K cold. You need to get things loosened up first.
Unless you are going for a "Team of Rivals" approach, sustainable collaboration is best when the people know and trust each other. Ideally they have met in person, know a bit about each other personally as well as professionally, have a sense of communication and work styles, and know what the individual strengths, weaknesses, and points of view are.
Companies need to consciously and actively help people get to know each other in these ways as much as possible before they are put together on projects. Many projects start quite abruptly and happen intensively and quickly, so if there is some level of familiarity and trust beforehand, it will make the work much more efficient when the team does come together.
Helping People Warm Up for Collaboration
Some ways to purposefully help people prepare for successful collaborations:
Give people public forums to introduce themselves and talk about their professional and personal backgrounds (prior companies and hobbies are both fruitful ways of understanding someone). True trust and empathy start to happen when there is even a slight emotional bond, not just a professional one. I'm not saying you have to turn your workplace into one giant therapy session. But militaries around the world understand this deeply — the bond between soldiers is consciously built up to be very strong, because they have to collaborate and trust each other under the most difficult circumstances. How can you create camaraderie?
In-person familiarity should be the default, but, in large organizations, this is hard to scale. Make use of social-networking tools to facilitate the process.
Find the people who are networking hubs in the organization, and introduce newcomers to them. Think of your organization as a party. Who can you introduce a new person to who will help them get to know the rest of the group the quickest?
For more prolonged relationship building, have a mentoring program in which a newcomer is paired up with someone who's been around a while. You may even have a "networking" mentor who is different from the usual "expertise" mentor.
Mix up disciplines. Don't segregate engineering from marketing, HR from finance, and so on. Make it easy for people to absorb others' perspectives just by walking around. Mix levels of seniority together for the same reason. (At Frog Design, we have completely open workspaces, with no cubicles, and all the disciplines are mingled together, as we want teams, who might work together in that specific combination of people for only a few weeks, to be able to hit the ground running. The warm-up should have already happened.)
Provide project spaces where teams can work continuously, all sitting together. If you just have individual workspaces (e.g., cubicles) and group meeting rooms (e.g., conference rooms that must be booked far in advance and vacated after an hour), then you are missing a key tool for facilitating collaboration and team- and trust-building.
Celebrate wins publicly by crediting the whole team, not just individuals. Get teams to talk about what worked and didn't work with their collaboration, so that others may learn. Get people into a mindset of thinking consciously about how and why a collaboration is working (or not). Don't let it seem like a magic-black-box process that gets chalked up to luck. Take a step back, and analyze it — just as you would any other process.
What's Good for Collaboration Is Also Good for Innovation
The great thing is that all these methods to aid collaboration also build a company's effectiveness at innovation. Why? Because:
Innovation comes from putting together ideas and perspectives that have never been combined before. Good collaboration makes this happen more efficiently.
Innovation involves risk-taking, and that doesn't happen if there's no trust that others will cover you when there is the inevitable stumble. The methods for building trust for collaboration help people more readily take risks as a result.
Most innovations can't be accomplished by individuals toiling away, or even by single organizations working in isolation. We need people around us to fill in the skills and knowledge gaps, and to tell us when we're full of crap. Collaboration is a critical skill for any organization wanting to actually bring innovations to market.
Adam Richardson, assistant vice president of Strategy and Marketing at global innovation firm Frog Design, is the author of Innovation X: Why a Company's Toughest Problems Are Its Greatest Advantage.