Collaboration  – March 29, 2005

I think that I would fall off my chair if I went into a workshop and didn’t hear the organization we were talking with want to be at least one, if not all of the following: an employer of choice, flexible, innovative, be the market leaders. It is not surprising that most organizations have the same goals, after all they are all businesses and even though they produce different services and products most are there to remain in business and to make money.

It is also not a big surprise that so many of the organizations we talk to feel that one of the ways they can achieve their goals is by promoting greater collaboration on every level: manager to staff, department to department, office to office. After all, it is a complex world we live in, the problems we solve are not simple; in fact the most significant changes in human history for good or bad have come about through individuals combining their forces in groups, like the Coalition of the Willing (sorry couldn’t help myself). As competitive pressures force companies to do more with less, there will be a greater need for organizations to rely on one part of their company to help another, putting a greater demand on the need to collaborate. The challenge will be how you get people to work across the organization, many of whom have different priorities, incentives and ways of doing things.

Getting this kind of collaboration right promises great benefits for companies. As a result the focus of the workplace in the past ten years has been away from individual spaces toward collaborative spaces of various types. It is expected that in the next five years individual / dedicated workspaces will be on average 10% smaller and the expected floor area dedicated to individual use will drop 16%. Today we design for small collaborations, big collaboration formal and informal – we provide mood lighting, comfy furniture, white boards etc. to promote interaction. We have done nothing short of providing  a few Barry White CD’s to get the sparks flying. A survey of Global 500 companies indiactes an average of 41% of their staff work collaboratively for significant portions of their workday. The average ratio of individual to collaborative workspace today is 3:1 over the next five years it is expected to reach 3:2.  All of this is great news when it comes to our ability to enable collaboration. Unfortunately, when it comes to making a real difference in terms of collaboration, it takes much more than a “space” to get groups working together.

Companies are hot to foster collaboration and in fact spend billions of dollars on initiatives to improve collaboration. However according to a recent Harvard Business Journal article the results of these initiatives are disappointing. They identified three myths in companies attempts to foster collaboration:

1. building a strong team will ensure collaboration.

2. An effective incentive system will ensure collaboration

3. Companies can be structured to encourage greater collaboration.

All of these they say are ineffective “seemingly sensible but ultimately misguided assumptions” because they focus on the systems and not the root cause of failures in cooperation. They believe that you cannot improve collaboration until you have addressed the issue of conflict.

The inevitability and importance to the organization of conflict is underestimated by most company leaders.“ The disagreements sparked by differences in perspective, competencies, access to information, and strategic focus within a company actually generate much of the value that can come from collaboration across organizational boundaries.” HBR recommends a clear step by step process for conflict resolution be integrated into a companies day to day decision making process. Conflict should not be viewed as a nuisance but as a valuable resource that should be managed, and exploited to gain greater insight into companies issues. Internal friction is often caused by unaddressed strain within the organization, or between the organization and its environment, there is great benefit in setting up methods to track and examine conflict that can lead to interesting new perspectives on a variety of issues.

In the Sage Allen New Business training some of us attended we were taught to probe to discover our clients needs, and their “real need” those that are not talked about as openly and are often personal. When thinking about collaboration and conflict we may be able to apply the same ideas. By probing to discover the issues that are not discussed, the ones that cause conflicts, we can encourage greater collaboration.

 

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