Collaboration: Driving Effective Teams to Improve Business Performance

John Canfield

Collaboration can be so much more than just assembling as a team to do work. Done poorly, the results are half-baked ideas half-heartedly supported by some of the team’s members. Done well, the results are decisions better than anyone expected supported enthusiastically by all of a team’s members.

Effective collaboration deliberately uses approaches, tools, and techniques that temporarily guide a team’s thinking towards more productive ends. "Collaboration" without a guide to focus thinking is often random, unproductive, and diminished by interpersonal conflict.

An organization's performance improvement depends heavily on leaders, managers, and employees learning to see new potential and opportunities in themselves and in others. This learning can be promoted by effective collaboration approaches, techniques, and tools that help teams develop effective dialogue. Dialogue is an effective approach to help participants consider options. Dialogue is a conversation that generates new knowledge.

Effective collaboration has two crucial components:

One is to ask the team to identify the best alternative – to make a really good decision. Good meetings actively promote identifying and prioritizing best choices often hiding in a wide variety of strongly-held personal opinions. Sometimes it's adequate to just brainstorm and select. But at other times teams need to get past the "politically correct" speed bumps and get the water cooler issues on the table so they too can be considered. And still other times, the best ideas haven't been discovered yet.

A second component is to deliberately build support for the team's selections by organizing the dialogue to promote participant contribution and buy-in. Here we want to take advantage of the wonderful principle that people support what they create. When people are included in the identification, comparison, and selection of alternatives, most often a very good solution emerges which everyone can support.

It is this combination of both better decisions and better support that provides team decisions which generate significant business impact. Effective collaboration builds both effective decisions and cooperative support. The key driver of collaboration is dialogue, a deep (data-driven) conversation that generates insights.

Modern improvement methodologies like Lean and Six Sigma are based on the notion of finding and eliminating waste. Yet non-collaborative behaviors are forms of waste and deserve the same attention as poor quality products or services.

The trip in effective collaboration is to use tools which guide thinking to help a team work collaboratively, staying away from the less productive behaviors.

The more those productive collaboration tools are used, the more they can become second nature and become collaboration skills. Real change doesn’t come from shouting, "I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this (dysfunctional leader and employee behavior) anymore!" And just asking someone to be more collaborative doesn’t generate lasting results.

Collaboration Speed Bumps

Most dysfunctional work behavior is driven by ego-based thinking. We need a way to change the thinking in order to change the behavior – a way to pull the team members’ thinking from ego-driven argument to data-driven robust dialogue, which leads to improved ideas, behaviors, and performance. This can include the same level of emotion, but altered from defending one’s position to building a team’s best option. It represents shift from chaos, to alignment and synergy.

Another common speed bump can be the willingness (or ability) of a person or team to handle conflict. The conflict is often manifested in behaviors that slow down or prevent progress. Some organizations try to treat the issue with artificial harmony. The refrain becomes, "Let’s all get along," or "If you don’t have something nice to say…"

But why is there conflict in our workplace to begin with? I think it’s because individuals inevitably have different ideas. What else is new? Conflict can actually be seen as the point at which you discover that people do have other ideas, which can become choices for you. And what’s wrong with having options? Baskin and Robbins is conflict – 31 choices, oh what will we do?

To handle, promote, or even provoke the conflict (a treasure of options, not interpersonal battles) we can use collaboration tools to generate and select a wide array of options that the team can then select from while referencing some listing of intended goals.

So in summary, effective collaboration:

• Is deliberate. It does not happen accidentally or randomly
• Builds better options by comparing data to listed goals
• Builds buy-in by being so interactive that it allows each team member to be heard (people support what they help create)
• Works best when the team uses effective which guide a team’s thinking in a very interactive way

Do Nothing or Do Something

The next task is to learn how to be deliberately collaborative, and to use communication tools to help individuals and teams develop effective dialogue and make and support better decisions. There are many good ways and resources to learn to develop collaboration skills and use collaboration tools.

Let’s say I want to solve a problem: I want to improve what I’m doing, right now. In a random approach I will assemble a team and brainstorm what the team members think the problem is. Lots of talk, lots of options.

In a collaborative approach, we meet around a flip chart and create a flowchart starting with the last step: the problem. We then discuss and document what we know to be the preceding steps, going to the workplace to confirm our perceptions. Once we have what we believe to be an accurate description of the problem and the contributing process, we then wonder together which step is the most likely to include the possible root cause. We conduct an experiment to confirm our guess. If we find the cause, we modify the process step, and make the problem go away.

In another example, if I’m not satisfied with the options I have available, I do not rely solely on brainstorming. I use tools like Mind Mapping or Random Word that deliberately provoke neural associations that generate new insights.

In Strategic Planning, I ask about 10 great questions that, answered by a thoughtful leadership team, develops a course of action that the team will support.

Scenario Planning, a real brain burner, asks teams to consider four alternative futures and think through how they would thrive or survive in each.

The point here is that if I want great decisions supported by the whole team, I need to structure the best way for the team to think and learn and buy into new options. This might happen accidentally – it might not.

Once a person knows how to use collaboration tools effectively, and keep learning new ones, they can help lead a team to build both better decisions while they help develop better support.

We have a choice: Let it happen, or make it happen. Think or sink.

Adapted from Think or Sink: A Parable of Collaboration, by John Canfield with Greg Smith.