Collaboration trumps cooperation

What you should know to successfully make the shift

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Does this sound familiar? You sit down with a client’s team to work on a project and as you start to ask questions to gain clarity and insight, the client gets exasperated and says something like, “Why are you asking us? You’re supposed to be the experts. Can’t you tell us?” Or maybe you are the client and the consultant is telling you how it is going to be without taking the time to understand the context of the challenge within your culture and structure.

It happens every day and often results in solutions that are at best a little off kilter and frustrated teams. Everyone may be cooperating – working toward the same ends – but what they should be doing is collaborating – working together to create something.

Moving from cooperation to collaboration isn’t easy. It takes planning, practice and a bit of sharing control -- something many of us struggle with. When done right collaboration can become embedded in your organizational culture, unlocking potential you didn’t know you had, but desperately needed. It helps everyone rise to the daily challenges of increased speed to market, adapting to change and driving innovation. It’s also at the heart of good client relations (read retention) as well as a key ingredient for breaking down the age old challenge of internal silos.

A key barrier to successfully making the shift from cooperation to collaboration – leaders focus on individuals. Team member’s skills are a very small part of the equation. Leaders should focus on the team, department and organization to build a culture of collaboration. Imagine a world where organizations collaborate like Scrum teams to achieve higher client satisfaction by working with clients, users, developers and engineers to design and build the solution.

If you are struggling here you are not alone. Making Collaboration Across Functions a Reality, a recent McKinsey & Company article, provides two great examples of how two very different companies achieved great results by changing the culture. Key to their success was realigning metrics to encourage collaboration. One company increased first-time-right delivery by more than 15 percent. The second firm, a complex multinational, focused on changing their both bottom up and top down culture by leveraging people identified as transformational leaders. Within 18 months they went from heavy losses to a No. 1 market position with healthy margins.

Why do I stress culture so much? Simply because I’ve seen too many great strategies fail because the culture doomed even the best ideas. On the other hand I’ve seen several mediocre strategies deliver incredible results because a culture of collaboration encouraged everyone to give their best – best ideas, best innovations, best work – knowing they would succeed, or fail, as group regardless of where they sat in the organization.

While the solutions to fostering a more collaborative culture will vary by organization structure and current-state culture, here are some ideas to get you moving in the right direction:

  1. Start at the top: culture is always set by the behavior of an organization’s leaders, so act the part.
  2. Go small to go big: start with small initiatives, perhaps a very troubled client challenge and put collaboration across teams front and center as the solution.
  3. Find pockets of great collaboration: then enlist these collaborators to seed collaboration elsewhere.
  4. Use carrots not sticks: collaboration is about building trust.
  5. Be transparent: be honest about the challenges and how a lack of collaborative behavior is impacting organizational success; then talk about what’s really being done to change that.

Still not convinced? As I was drafting this post the May Digital issue of CIO arrived. In his Publisher’s Note, Adam Dennison, SVP & Publisher,, talks about how at a recent meeting of Palo Alto CIO’s several said they were struggling to make progress with cloud adoption, “When I asked why certain companies were still resisting the cloud, the answers weren’t about security or data control, as we’ve come to expect. They were mainly about cultural resistance and the ‘We’ve always done it this way’ mindset.”

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