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Building A Collaborative Business

May 18, 2012

“You have to learn that you make better decisions through collaboration.” John Chambers, CEO and Chairman CISCO. He leads a global technology business with a $40 Billion turnover and his career spans Wang Laboratories and IBM too. But he is now focusing on building better business – through smarter collaboration

Chambers’ career was built on his ability to command and control but he now says; “That’s not the future – it’s about collaboration.  I believe that companies and leaders who do not change will be left behind. And so I had to move from being a command and control leader. You have to learn that you make better decisions through collaboration.”

Chambers is just one of the business leaders described in Morten T Hansen’s excellent book – Collaboration How Leaders Avoid The Traps, Create Unity And Reap Big Results. Hansen outlines the opportunities and barriers to building a collaborative culture and the kind of initiatives and solutions he recommends to getting it right. It’s a great book on this topic.

In the CollaborativeEdge Programme we focus on sharpening up the personal and practical skills – as we see collaboration as something individuals have to take responsibility for. Participants are led from Self-Awareness, to Conversation and Listening skills and Relationship Management Plans. The programme  explains the role that different skills, opinions, depth and breadth of knowledge have within the innovation process – and why valuable x-silo relationships are so valuable. But of course, business leaders can weaken as well as strengthen collaborations too through the management style and systems they promote. As John Abele, CEO of Boston Scientific said in HBR in 2011 many potentially rich business deals and collaborations are ‘poisoned by otherwise bright people’. Stephen Hemmings also comments that most important business relationships are failing due to poor interpersonal and collaboration skills – and he points to the recent research from Hay and Forrester too, noting that a lack of collaboration skills was a major block to an organisation’s ability to innovate.

So can businesses change – like John Chambers says he has had to? Hansen believes that the management of organisations can create a more collaborative culture and reap the rewards that such openness can bring; more innovation, greater efficiencies, improvements in service, sales and employee engagement.  Helpfully, Hansen identifies three levers that can be used to build a collaborative business; 1 – Unifying the People, 2 – Nurturing T-Shaped People and 3 – Building Nimble Networks.

The Winners Are Collaboration United…

Like Jonathan Haidt (see my earlier article about his work in this area) – Hansen sees cohesive teams as valuable corporate assets.  A sense of internal rivalry and competitiveness is valuable but must be managed. But crucially, there is great power in a Unifying Goal, and that is something that must be clearly understood, incites common value and as Hansen points out it must ‘speak the language of collaboration’. But it’s about more than mission, visions, goals and speeches. And as Ron Keshanas discusses in Forbes it’s often easier to ‘say you are doing collaboration’ – than actually getting up and doing it. He says;

“True collaboration is difficult and time-consuming. It requires subordinating individual goals to collective achievement; it means engaging in tough, emotional give-and-take discussions with colleagues about strategies and ideas; and it often leads to working in new ways that may not be comfortable or easy. So given these difficulties, most teams find it easier to talk about collaboration rather than do it.”  – And Keshanas goes on to say; “It doesn’t have to be this way. Teams can address their challenges through true collaboration, and by doing so can achieve outstanding results. The starting point however is to make a conscious — and collective — decision to go beyond compliance and cooperation.” So true and simple but often so difficult to achieve…

Time For T-Shaped People

The second important Lever identified by Hansen is the Cultivation of T-Shaped People. A T-shaped person is someone who possesses both the depth of knowledge & skill to consistently deliver results in their own role (the vertical bar of the T) – whilst also able to add value and work across the organisation with others too (the horizontal bar of the T). In a battle for Talent – it is these individuals who are the most valuable to find and retain if you want to build an innovative culture.

Finding and nurturing the T-Shaped People..

T-Shaped people are able to balance their own needs with an ability to contribute in a focused way to valuable other projects too. It’s not about interfering or internal office tourism – it is about having a purpose, adding value, sharing and working in a focused way. Coaching the existing team into becoming T-shaped – and recruiting new people with T-shaped attitude and skills will help build a Collaborative Culture.

It’s Always the Network

The final lever identified by Hansen is the power of Networks – and especially nimble networks, those flexible sets of connections that help deliver and get things done…

Everyone has a network. The links to colleagues, associates whom we can tap into within and outside the business. These are the arteries of innovation and progress carrying change and knowledge. And smart UK businesses such as Informal Networks Limited – are able to build and model the connections taking place within an organisation, identify key people and the kind of influence they have and help managers lead change within the organisation. But as an individual, how do you build the kind of nimble network that is so valuable? Hansen usefully points out Six networking rules..

The Six Degrees Of Collaborative Network Building

First – Build Outwards.  You need to find connections across and outside of your department and get into other units and other areas.

Second – Aim for Diversity, Not Size.  You need different opinions, skills, knowledge and variety, not hundreds of in-house marketing executives.

Third – Look For ‘weak ties’. Casual and quick interactions, not highly involved communications are valuable and low touch is better than high maintenance.

Fourth – Find ‘Bridges’. The people who can connect you to distant shores of knowledge and skill.

Fifth – Swarm. Enlist others to help you discuss and open up the right connections and conversations

Sixth –Build Strong Ties. Know that when you have complex projects, teams and knowledge, you cannot rely on weak ties and ineffective links. You need to build cohesive plans with a high degree of personal trust and commitment.

These personal networks are not made of wire, buttons and switches but of humans with emotions and personalities. These networks therefore require securing trust, conversation, empathy and promises. That is why the CollaborativeEdge Programme sees awareness of self and conversation skills as the critical foundations for successful relationship management and collaboration.

The dangers of failing to build a collaborative culture are perhaps best illustrated by Hansen in his story of Sony V Apple. He points out that most people in their thirties who use an iPod, grew up using and loving a Sony Walkman to transport their music around. And Sony had the technology and the design to win. Sony failed because it consistently failed to collaborate across its computing, music and consumer worlds, to build a digital music player – leading the door open for a focused Apple to steal its massive hold. Apple used software from various other businesses and of course, secured huge licensing deals for content with the music business.

Darwin was right –  ‘Those that collaborate and improvise most successfully – prevail’

For more on collaboration and innovation please visit Benchstone and andrewarmour.co And for further details on the CollaborativeEdge Programme contact Andrew Armour or Stephen Hemmings.

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