How often do we see ‘must be a team player’ in job specifications? Indeed, by the same token, it is probably one of the most common items on the list of strengths candidates put on their CV. Being able to be part of a team is something that we almost universally accept as being desirable. Collaboration in the workplace is a very different concept, however, because it is very possible to be part of the team, and indeed for that team to run quite well, and not have everyone collaborating effectively.
Collaboration is not about creating teams, but it is often partially a result of good teams being able to work, openly, creatively, freely and honestly.
- When a business is truly collaborative in approach, it will give an opportunity for everyone to contribute. Experience and training should always lead, but if they are utilised by employees who are willing to look at new ideas, those skills can be used to refine and adapt. The important aspect here is that decisions are taken based on the most logical and appropriate outcome. That means a line in the sand where personal agenda must give way to the needs of the business.
- It is important that a team has common goals and particularly smaller task goals that allow collaboration. Big concepts such as company ethos, business plans, expansion goals and so on are important, but they must form the strategic approach to smaller, more focused, tasks. It is in these small parts of the overall jigsaw that collaboration will be found.
- Conflict resolution will inevitably form part of the collaboration process. When people feel they have a voice they will invest more in the process. This is a very desirable result to aspire to because, as every employer knows, feeling valued and heard is very much part of the job satisfaction that leads to long-term employee retention and commitment. Openness and honesty though when mixed with a freedom to be creative can lead to different opinions and friction. A good team is capable of dealing with those and allowing the collaborative approach to work.
- There is an old adage ‘two heads are better than one’ and of course this is absolutely true. One of the main advantages of fostering a collaborative workplace is that that the people within it will combine and re-combine as needed to tackle problems and develop new ideas.
- From the employee point of view, collaboration has the invaluable benefit of learning and the sharing of ideas and skills. This then is paid forward to other employees producing a much more rounded and adaptable workforce.
What are the difficulties?
Why is it possible then to have a seemingly working team that does not fully collaborate? The answer to this is wide-ranging because, just as a collaborative process can benefit the workplace, it does come with its own set of potential difficulties, and these need to be accounted for when fostering this kind of environment.
- Skill and experience must lead, not just pay lip service to doing so. There is a very understandable tendency for groups to fall into a pattern where reaching an agreement becomes the sole goal. This very quickly leads to the choices and decisions being made based on keeping the peace not the right solution. Clear leaders and decision makers are required, and they cannot be afraid to decide when to move forward.
- For collaboration to work there needs to be clear understanding in the team of who has the power of final decision and most importantly this power should be based on having the knowledge and experience to choose the right option. The apprentice may well have a great idea, but it will be the experienced person who will recognise it as practical and useful.
- Everyone needs to be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. If they are not, then they will not recognise where they need to give way to the right person.
- Letting go and moving on is vital. Everyone needs to buy into the decisions being made enough to follow them, but also be capable of retaining their own ideas in case they need to be resurrected later.
- The person at the top may not always be the right person. In fact, in most businesses, the requirements of the daily operation often far exceed the capacity and/or the skills set of the management team. The Financial Director may well have some input into the suitability of a marketing approach, for example, in terms of whether it is financially viable, as well as throwing some ideas on content into the ring. In the end, though, they need to be able to have the self-control to allow the marketing people the last say on content and strategy. Collaboration will very quickly fall apart if one senior manager overrules the experts around them.
When it works, a collaborative approach will develop your team, produce a happier more cohesive workforce, and impact on the productivity and development of the business. While the seeds of it may well show spontaneously, it needs to be planned, structured and built into your working practice throughout the team for it to really pay off.