Whether it’s a group of two or twenty, or if you are part of a task force, a virtual team, a new or long-term team member, everyone in today’s workplace is working in some form of a team. Results show organizations thrive when teamwork is at its best.   In recent research on talent management, the #1 issue for leadership is how to redesign their organizational structure to meet the demands of their workforce and business climate.[1]

The evolution of technology, and the needs and motivations of different generations in the workplace, are two factors that have caused a shift from a more traditional hierarchy to a more collaborative network of teams.   The challenge is how can leaders build networks of teams that are empowered to take action.[2]

There are trends with physical office spaces moving to more open, collaborative areas to encourage diverse and increasingly virtual workforces. This provides flexibility and choices for where, when and how work happens, critical for attracting the best and brightest people.  60% of employees with high access to flexibility are very satisfied with their jobs, compared with 44% of those with moderate access and only 22% of those with low access.[3]

However, developing and sustaining high performing networks of teams is about more than office space or work flexibility.  At the core of this issue is how companies refocus roles, responsibilities, communication channels, schedules, work space, and more, to encourage collaboration.

Cisco is embracing this new collaboration head-on by creating Team Space, a platform that delivers intelligence on how teams can work best to win together.  The Team Space technology, and the ways in which teams interact with it, allow customized tips for team leaders about what the best teams are doing. It also allows leaders to measure their engagements against the highest performing teams, and against their team’s engagement over time.

So, what can collaboration look like for your organization?  How can you help your organization gain value from working alongside each other?

1. How what collaboration is and what collaboration isn’t

There are some people (I was one of them) who hear the word ‘collaboration’ and picture a lot of discussion and not a lot of action.   A recent Harvard Business Review article[4] helped refine my view of collaboration by explaining 2 things that collaboration is not:

  • Collaboration is not a style:  I always equated collaboration with a type of leadership style that was centered around building consensus and establishing relationships.  These are certainly important when collaboration is successful, however, consensus and relationships do not come at the expense of achieving a goal.
  • Collaboration is not always the answer:  Collaboration is not an ‘all or nothing’ approach.  There are times when building consensus is critical, and there are times that a decision needs to be made and action taken.  Collaboration overextended leads to endless discussion and debate.  Invest in helping your employees understand what collaboration looks like and when decision making is critical.

2. Communicate executive collaboration successes (and challenges)

While most would agree that the behavior of an executive team is crucial to supporting a culture of collaboration, many times the challenge is to make executives’ behavior visible. Collaboration may be occurring, but without frequent and open communication, the results and value of that collaboration is not visible to the rest of the organization.  Help your senior leaders understand the impact of sharing their successes and challenges as a mechanism to cascade collaboration throughout the organization.

At one of our clients, a large healthcare organization in the Boston area, building and leveraging relationships is a one of the core values.  The CEO and President frequently shared his personal successes in this area (building a high functioning and diverse senior leadership team), but he also shared the times and situations where he struggled to work with others effectively (launching a new product line as a successful subsidiary).  His transparency lead to a more honest conversation about how to successfully collaborate within a rapidly changing internal and external environment.

3. Don’t assume that people understand both the individual and organizational benefits

Too often organizations assume that people will understand and operationalize what collaboration can do and how it will help.  Don’t just focus on the overall corporate value and benefit when communicating that collaboration is important.  To ensure collaboration is sustainable, employees need to understand how it will impact them on a regular basis.  How will collaboration help them achieve their objectives?  How will it make their work experience better or more rewarding?

An ongoing focus on role and team clarity and expectations, is critical to ensuring consistent collaboration.  As discussed above, establishing rules of the road for collaboration in your organization will mean an ongoing and flexible approach to roles and responsibilities.  In an effective collaboration process, all people involved should be able to answer, “Who is supposed to do what by when?”

4. Listen to the voice of the employee

“Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, and but one tongue— to the end that we should hear and see more than we speak.”  ~Socrates

While modelling collaboration at the top of an organization is important, many times it’s the employees that have the most insight into where and when collaboration can be effective.  Too often, the voices of these employees aren’t heard. Ensuring that collaboration is leveraged effectively means that senior leaders need to create and sustain mechanisms by which they hear, and strive to understand, employee’s feedback.  Make employees part of the decision making on how to increase collaboration from the very beginning.

5. Develop leaders who are both relationship AND task oriented

Task-oriented leaders focus on getting the necessary task, or series of tasks, in hand to achieve a goal.  Relationship-oriented leaders are focused on supporting, motivating, and developing the people on their teams and their relationships within.  Both are important in ensuring collaboration is effective.  Either style, overleveraged, will dilute the impact and value of collaboration.  Therefore, organizations need to help their leaders understand their personal style and tendencies, but also develop a stronger toolkit to be able to adapt accordingly.

Collaboration is not a new concept in business. However, due to the rising importance of teamwork to an organization’s success, the increase in flexible work arrangements and virtual teams, and an ongoing emphasis on innovation, collaboration has moved from ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’ for an organization to be successful.

About the Author: Cheryl Jacobs

About MCG Partners

MCG Partners a woman-owned, Greater Boston-based consultancy specializing in executive coaching, leadership development, talent management, and organizational development solutions. We help businesses optimize success through the entire management life-cycle. MCG Partners is also a Predictive Index® (PI®) certified partner.

To learn more about MCG Partners’ services or The Predictive Index®, contact John Griffith at john.griffith@mcgpartners.com or visit mcgpartners.com.

[1] Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends, 2016

[2] Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends, 2017

[3] Galinsky, Ellen, et. al., ‘National Study of the Changing Workforce,’ 2008; ‘Workplace Flexibility in the U.S.: A Status Report,’ 2010; ‘Workplace Flexibility: From Research to Action,’ 2011.

[4] Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2017/05/how-to-capture-value-from-collaboration-especially-if-youre-skeptical-about-it