Don't Overdo Collaboration: Working Effectively Across Boundaries

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Hey there, and welcome to Episode 53 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership Podcast. This week's episode, Don't Overdo Collaboration: Working Effectively Across Boundaries. The focus on collaboration in large organisations remains as trendy now as it was 10 years ago. By that measure, at least, it's become one of the longest standing fads to come out in the last few decades. This wouldn't have happened unless there was something to it. Collaboration has the potential to unlock value by harnessing diversity and innovation, bringing people together with different views and perspectives, and overcoming groupthink.

But, despite these positives, collaboration has a lot to answer for as a result of its role in slowing decision making processes down, clouding accountability structures, and proliferating the amount of time we all spend in meeting rooms, not to mention our email inboxes. We're going to start by talking about why collaboration is actually awesome. We'll work out what we put at risk if we overdo it, or if we don't manage it properly, and finally, I'm going to give you my eight keys to successful collaboration, and of course, there'll be a free download available from the freebies page of the Your CEO Mentor website www.yourceomentor.com/freebies, so let's get into it.

Let's start with the definition. Collaboration is working with one another, or cooperating to deliver a shared objective. Now, by definition, everyone in every organisation has shared objectives, so at the highest level, the success of the organisation. However, a lot of things tend to get in the way, and the larger the organisation, the bigger the problems tend to be. Self-interest, politics, and sometimes just plain old breakdowns in communication can prevent people from working well together.

Why do we need to collaborate? If everyone just does what they thinks best, either individually, or at a team level, then a few things are likely to happen. Number one, there'll be a lack of alignment between teams. Now, it's classic left hand, right hand stuff. In other words, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Number two, no one gets to test, and challenge the understanding of what will deliver the best results, so value is diluted at its inception. That's why, for example, independent peer review is so important in large investment projects. You've got to test the assumptions early at the concept, and pre-feasibility stages to do the value engineering before anyone gets too excited, and jumps down into solution and delivery mode.

Number three, people become more competitive with other teams, quite often in a counterproductive way for their organisation, so an "us, and them" culture develops very, very quickly. It's a natural part of human behaviour. This is more than amply demonstrated by the famous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted in 1971. 24 college students were randomly assigned the roles of either prisoner, or warden, and the speed with which they identified with their assigned group was absolutely staggering. In a very short period of time. A third of the guards became immediately overzealous in their role exhibiting genuine sadistic tendencies, and a number of the prisoners suffered severe psychological trauma.

The experiment had to be abandoned after about six days, but it shows how quickly we tend to identify with a group, and adopt its behavioural norms. Number four, groupthink develops as there's not enough diversity of opinion, experience and perspective. This similar thinking styles in agreement on core issues is seen by some as 'high performing team' territory when it's exactly the opposite. Number five, gaps and overlaps in both resourcing, and work programmes is almost inevitable. I've actually seen examples earlier on in my career in large organisations where two teams sitting on the same floor in close physical proximity to each other are working on virtually the same thing, but not knowing that this was the case, because their respective leaders didn't communicate appropriately.

There are a bunch of really good reasons to increase collaboration, especially in organisations that are based on a functional matrix structure. These are designed inherently to ensure inputs on key issues are provided by experts who are specifically tasked to do so. For example, safety, legal, risk, finance, and so forth. These organisations are specifically designed so that these areas can have some input over the P&L or line parts of the business that may not otherwise pay attention to these corollary disciplines. Now, this is not to say that it can't, or shouldn't happen in business line structured organisations, but it is undoubtedly harder to achieve collaboration under that context.

By putting people together, you can unlock the latent value they possess. It creates constructive tension. As different viewpoints surface, they're debated, and they're thrashed out. I can't count the number of outcomes that have been enhanced simply by having a good, robust debate. But there's a balance to achieve, so this type of debate doesn't become too adversarial, because that can damage relationships in the longer term. So as a leader, you've got to manage this fairly carefully. But discovery of risks, and issues, and potential value, you can't do that. You can't see it when you're too close to it. And just having more brains to draw upon for a start is a really good thing.

It's probably worth mentioning a concept called The Wisdom of Crowds, and this was based on a book published about 15 years ago. Now, although the findings are probably not empirically robust. It's a great frame to think through. The collective judgement of the crowd is often smarter than the smartest person in the crowd. For example, there was a test where taking the average of all the people who guessed how many jelly beans were in a jar was much more accurate than the closest estimate of an individual. This isn't necessarily a naturally occurring phenomenon, because you do have to have the preconditions for it.

So, according to the book, there are five conditions that are required for what we call a 'wise crowd'. The first one is diversity of opinion. Each person should have private information, even if it's just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts. The second precondition is independence. People's opinions aren't determined by the opinions of those around them. The third, decentralisation. People need to be able to specialise, and draw on local knowledge. Number four is, aggregation. Some mechanism has to exist for turning private judgements into a collective decision. Finally, trust. Each person has to trust their collective group to operate fairly.

Now, this doesn't happen by itself as I said, and it's well known that in organisations nothing happens unless a leader makes it happen. This requires a combination of a few things, so you've got to establish the right structures, and they've got to be in place, and people need to understand what they are. You've got to create the right culture, and expectations for people to operate within, and then, set up reward systems accordingly. For this, managing conflict is a critical skill that many leaders simply don't possess to the level they need to, but creating a culture of robust, but respectful challenge is almost a prerequisite to being able to get any of this to happen.

You need to bring out the diverse opinions, thinking styles, and experiences that are at your disposal, and different personality types won't contribute the same way, so you need to know your people, and know how to get them to contribute to their best. Here's the thing though, if you can unlock the power of your people, and drive highly collaborative outcomes for your organisation, it can be a massive source of value. When we were putting together the performance standards for the leaders at CS Energy, we initially started with five categories; Safety, Commercial, Management, Leadership and Developing People, and for all our leaders they were assessed on those five things. But before we actually went live with it, and got too far down the track, we modified it to include the six category which was called Working Across Boundaries.

We realised how much of an impediment to success the siloed nature of the organisation actually was. As I said, all leaders had this in their performance standard, and they were rated on their performance in all of those six areas equally. Now, let's move on to talk about what we put at risk if we overdo collaboration. We know it's a good thing, so why can it be detrimental to us? For me, there's an absolute dark side if it's not managed well. Probably, the most obvious thing I've seen is that it can drive indecisiveness. If all opinions are considered to be equally valid, and equally valued, then quite often this leads to nothing more than confusion.

You'll see lots of full meeting rooms with lots of people, saying lots of things, and very few decisive outcomes, and you'll get used to hearing expressions like, "Let's take this offline." Or, "I think we need more data." Or "Well, we actually need another meeting." The indecisiveness that this drives can be absolutely crippling, and the sense that everyone has to be included in everything is just simply not right. I love the expression, "Everyone gets their say, but not everyone gets their way." And so, harnessing the input of people, and getting the best out of them is fantastic, but you've got to know what to do with it.

If you fall back into the full position of decision making by consensus where everyone has to agree, or management by committee, when unless you have unanimity nothing happens, you end up in trouble. This also morphs into an even more sinister thing called the power of veto. Now, quite often you'll have a very senior person, a thought leader, or an opinion leader who says, with 10 people in the room agreeing on something, "I'm not sure I agree with that. I don't think we should do it that way." And, without taking any of the responsibility, or the accountability for getting the job done, they simply veto the initiative, and this stops progress dead in its tracks, and it stifles value.

You'll also see sometimes there's a massive growth in overheads, because everyone's in there giving their opinion, their expert opinion, and their well-meaning opinion, but it doesn't actually drive results. You've got to watch for the overhead growth. This quite often results in some things that we've seen; organisational inertia, slowing the rhythm of execution, wild cost increases as we ramp up all the different support and advisory functions, and lack of clarity about who owns what decisions.

Managing this balance between appropriate collaboration, and moving forward decisively with accountable decision makers is a balance, and leaders need to learn how to tread that balance. I've got eight keys here to successful collaboration, so that you can get the most out of it without falling into those pitfalls we've just been talking about. What are the things that will actually drive successful collaboration without slowing the organisation down, or treading all over the decision rights of the accountable people? Number one, establish the right organisational structures. Whether you're in a business unit structure, or a functional structure, it's got to be clear who's cooking the chook. You've got to work out who's doing what.

Clearly define the role of any functional support areas, make sure that the teams are multidisciplinary, so that you get that input naturally as the teams work together, and as I said, this is tougher in a business unit structure than it is in a functional, or a matrix based organisation. Number two, bring in the right people. You can't harness diversity if there's no diversity there to harness. The whole thing about collaboration is that you're getting difference of ideas, difference of experiences, and difference of opinions. Think about diversity in terms of not just gender, but cultural, and geographic origin, thinking styles, industry experience, organisational type, and size.

If you can put all of these things together, you'll get a number of different views that can add up to a much better outcome overall. Number three, create a culture of robust challenge, so set the expectation of people to give their opinion, and to give it fully, and willingly, and fearlessly. When you're facilitating meetings as a leader, you have to include everyone, so include people by calling them into the conversation by name, "Hey, Jeff, what do you think of that? Hey, Sally, do you agree with that point?" Pull it out of people if they're not going to volunteer it themselves.

And, working from the other angle, when you've got accountable decision makers that you're talking to, and coaching, and mentoring as you do as a leader, ask them if they've done their bit around collaboration, "Have you spoken to Ken? Have you spoken to Rosemary about that?" Make sure they're getting the right input, and they're not just making their decisions unilaterally. Number four, set clear accountabilities. Now, this is the number one driver of good collaboration. You have to ensure that single-point accountabilities are in place for everything, and that the people who are accountable are also empowered to make decisions rapidly, but after strong consultation. You always have to have one head to pat, one ass to kick - that's it.

Number five, set delivery targets that imply speed of decision making. You've got to create a hot tempo here, and as you go further up the chain, get to CEO level, you need to be unreasonable in your expectations of timing. You need to push the organisation forward, and create that sense of urgency, so don't let people procrastinate on decisions. Promote excellence over perfection, as our episode three of No Bullsh!t Leadership covered off on. Number six, measure progress at short intervals. Create an appropriate reporting rhythm. Make sure you pick up any blockages, and delays really quickly, and have good milestones to manage progress without getting into your people's knitting, the nitty gritty detail of what they're doing day to day.

Just make sure that the level of oversight you have gives you the ability to see when things are slowing down, or getting stuck. Number seven, break the deadlocks. When you sense a stalemate developing, force a solution quickly. Now, ideally you want the people who are deadlocked to sort it out for themselves, and as I used to say to my executives, "If you can't win the trust, and respect of your peers, I can't help you with that." They've got to develop the relationships that allow them to work through problems, and solve them. But if that's not possible, you need to be the escalation point, and make a call, and make sure that for that you're available. Give your people access to you, appropriately of course.

Finally, number eight, eliminate the power of veto. Explain to the opinion leaders what their role actually is. No one has power of veto except as the leader, maybe you, but only when you've given it very careful consideration. You shouldn't use that very often at all, but make it clear to your people that the 'all care, no responsibility' mindset is simply not part of your culture.

Aright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 53. As I said, those eight points are going to be a downloadable on Your CEO Mentor website, www.yourceomentor.com/episode53.

Thanks so much for joining us, and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally, so if you're enjoying the podcast please share it with the leaders in your network, because this is how we improve the world of work. I look forward to next week's episode, Managing The Board.

Until then I know you'll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.