When people work together, they’re capable of generating remarkable results. But there are lots of assumptions you might be making — without even realizing it — that could be holding your colleagues back.
Read on to discover 4 questions to ask yourself and your team today. Each one will show you how to avoid an all-too-common business collaboration trap.
1. Do we have too many experts in the mix?
Strange as it may sound, having a lot of credentialed experts on your team could actually mean less collaboration — unless you proactively do something about it!
In their Harvard Business Review article “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams,” authors Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson share the insights they acquired from analyzing survey results from more than 1,500 respondents.
Some of those insights are counterintuitive. While pulling together a group of experts sounds like a good idea, it turns out that it comes at a cost:
“We found that the greater the proportion of experts a team had, the more likely it was to disintegrate into nonproductive conflict or stalemate.”
But before you start shuffling your experts around, take heart. There are practices that help teams deal with this challenge and others — practices that “help teams overcome substantially the difficulties that were posed by size, long-distance communication, diversity, and specialization.”
These eight practices include modelling collaborative behavior and creating a culture of mentoring and coaching. “Building on heritage relationships” — or deliberately putting people who go back a long way on the same team — is another one of the eight.
While they endorse this last practice, the authors caution that putting too many friends on a team together can also impede collaboration:
“When a significant number of people within the team know one another, they tend to form strong subgroups….[W]hen that happens, the probability of conflict among the subgroups, which we call fault lines, increases.”
So too many experts, left unchecked, can decrease the effectiveness of business collaboration. But as you take measures to address that, it’s important to carefully oversee those practices as well.
2. Are my team members too quick to agree with each other?
Everyone gets along and agrees about everything — sounds great, right? Not so fast. Without some “creative abrasion,” you’re limiting how productive and innovative your collaboration will be.
In the book Collective Genius, authors Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback trace specific business cases related to innovation and collaboration and synthesize lessons learned (read an excerpt from Collective Genius here on the Redbooth blog). In the chapter on creative abrasion, they review a challenge faced by Pixar.
Two films — Up and a Cars short — needed access to the rendering technology at the same time. Normally this didn’t happen at Pixar, but a variety of unexpected factors had created this serious scheduling conflict.
Both films were in jeopardy, and the ripples from being late could have far-ranging and unacceptably expensive consequences. The process of finding a solution was not comfortable for anyone involved, and there were many moments of frustration, pressure, and even despair.
Everyone involved felt like they had been asked to do something impossible, and at many points it looked like a zero-sum game. Radical solutions were proposed — and each one was rejected.
And yet the extreme solidarity of the Pixar teams — along with a heavy dose of pressure from the top — made it possible to pull back ideas that had been rejected and look at them with fresh eyes again.
They ended up agreeing to try a risky, extreme, and paradigm-changing proposal: in a first-of-its-kind experiment, they borrowed 250 rendering computers from Disney, came in on the weekend to install, test, and set up the computers, and had them up and running on Monday.
To everyone’s immense relief, both films were completed on time.
The authors of Collective Genius attribute this success to creative abrasion, a process that requires a unique set of circumstances:
“Brainstorming is all about support and only support. Creative abrasion, on the other hand, is about support and confrontation. That’s why it only works with a community built on purpose, values, and rules.”
They emphasize that the must-have components in creative abrasion are “diversity and conflict.”
At the same time, Pixar’s unique solution-oriented environment was essential to truly leverage these two elements productively:
“[Pixar’s] sense of mutual respect, trust, and influence created a fertile context for the kind of idea sparring necessary for creative abrasion.”
Thoughtful leadership, the authors add, is also a requirement for creative abrasion to work well and ensure that it moves forward in an effective manner.
So simply encouraging your team members to battle it out is not the answer. It’s about harnessing the power of different perspectives and creating an environment where people can disagree in a way that ultimately leads to better outcomes.
3. Are we going to try to build robust collaboration on top of outdated technology?
This question may take you by surprise — especially if you don’t think of email as “outdated.” But as David F. Carr points out, that depends on what you’re asking email to do.
David isn’t just Redbooth’s Chief Evangelist — he’s also the author of Social Collaboration for Dummies. In his Social Collaboration cheat sheet, David explains specifically why we may have come to rely on email in a way that exceeds its capacities. Often, email can feel like a rickety foundation for dynamic collaborative exchanges:
“Email was never designed as a medium for long-running discussions with lots of participants and quoted text from each other’s messages.”
David also points out that email can thrust people into the spotlight if they contribute, so many just remain silent. He shares the example of shy employees who wouldn’t feel comfortable hitting reply-all to respond to an email from the CEO. However, as he points out, those same employees might be more comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas in another kind of forum, especially if their colleagues are doing that too.
When more employees share their thoughts and insights, the potential benefits in this scenario extend beyond giving a few quiet folks the opportunity to express themselves:
“In [this] process, the leader gets insight into what those on the front lines of the organization think — input that might otherwise be filtered out by the layers of management in between.”
If you’ve been attempting to draw people out across your company and encourage collaboration on email, it means that you have the right intentions. The next step is simply to ensure that the communication platform you’re using can support these new initiatives.
For large enterprises, this doesn’t mean starting from scratch in terms of technology. Often it’s possible to complement existing IT infrastructure with agile technology, a solution that enables enterprises to leverage their existing investments while remaining competitive.
4. Have we been treating business collaboration technology as an end in itself?
The point of business collaboration isn’t just, well, to collaborate.
In this talk, he outlines three stages that companies focus on as they integrate social collaboration tools: Sharing, Getting Work Done, and Purposeful Collaboration.
Sharing and Getting Work Done are essentially focused on the day-to-day. So it’s the third stage — Purposeful Collaboration — that many companies don’t always consider. “Your company’s doing a lot of things right and using a lot of the right tools,” he says. “What you’re doing now may be right if you augment some of those processes.”
With Purposeful Collaboration, you identify specific business processes you want to focus on improving at your company or on your team — according to Alan, “resolve issues faster” would be one example. You also identify the purpose for this process goal: in his talk, Alan suggests that a company might do this in order to “in order to have happier customers.”
Use cases like this start to build a big-picture framework to guide the strategic implementation of business collaboration tools. And beyond that, the use cases help to reframe questions about measuring the effectiveness of those business collaboration tools.
Instead of the common question “What’s my ROI on this tool?” Alan explains that the most effective way to measure ROI is to focus on the areas related to the business processes and outcomes you identified earlier.
So once you have your new technology in place, the key question from the earlier example might now be “How much did we improve our customer support?” In other words, the collaboration software is valuable because it can help serve your highest-priority business purposes.
It’s essential to focus on “the actual business impacts,” Alan says. The best technology will help you drive your company’s highest-priority business objectives. And that’s where it counts the most.
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