My early business career was in business development, buying and selling businesses and pulling together joint ventures. One thing I learned through that experience is that no matter how conflicting someone’s position was to yours, there was always a way to work together. You just needed to understand how and where their interests aligned with your goals. Work hard enough to understand what they want and eventually a path forward together will open up.
Collaborating with Enemies
Reading the book ‘Collaborating with the Enemy’ by Adam Kahane recently, I realised how this early business experience meant I came to the work of organisational collaboration with an uncommon mindset. Kahane highlights that much discussion of collaboration focuses on the idea of one cohesive team with an agreed view of the problem and the solution. Kahane contrasts this with his term ‘stretch collaboration’ where there are multiple groups in conflict, where the group needs to experiment a way forward to solve the issues and where maintaining engagement is a key challenge. My friend Harold Jarche makes a similar point with his distinction between collaboration and cooperation.
This distinction is a critical one in organisational contexts. In many corporate and client situations in which I have worked the value of in team collaboration is obvious to people. In a team, everyone shares a leader and there is clear alignment of goals. The value of collaboration outside that team is usually less clear to employees who have come to see other teams as competing for resources, success and even existence. The great challenge of organisations seeking to transform to digital ways of working is not moving faster in the inner loop of the team. Moving faster and more effectively in a team context is a problem whose dynamics are largely known and there is leadership to deliver that outcome. The challenge of digital success is engaging the complexities and misalignment of the wider organisation.
Creating Psychological Safety for Collaboration
I can see now that my early career experience meant that I didn’t always fully understand the reticence of people to engaging in this wider outer loop stretch collaboration. Much research has highlighted the need for leaders and teams to create psychological safety to enable effective collaboration. Employees aren’t going to take risks and experiment if the environment feels unsafe.
My previous career experience had given me an unusually high sense of safety in risky forms of collaboration. Worse still, it was obvious to me that you could collaborate to mutual advantage with competitors and people who shared no interest in your success. That is not a point that is obvious to employees who don’t feel safe in their organisation.
Organisations have not made that point obvious to their employees and many poor leaders enhance the within team dynamic by excerbating competition with and fear of others in the organisation. One of the benefits of working out loud is to enable people to discover the value of connection with people beyond their day to day networks and also to discover through contributions how their interests might align to achieve goals.
Focus on Alignment
One of the key themes of the work that I have done with organisations, leaders and employees using the Collaboration value maturity model is to stress the value of alignment, a step usually skipped in people’s rush to deploy new technology and race to the good bits of collaboration, like innovation.
The Connection and Sharing phases of the Collaboration Value Maturity Model are opportunities for teams to understand and develop the rationales, behaviours and trust required for more effective collaboration. Activity in these two phases, led by leaders at all levels who are looking for alignment and are seeking connection to higher strategic goals, builds an environment of psychological safety and a strong imperative for employees to connect, share, solve and innovate together well beyond the boundaries of their immediate team. Working out loud reinforces the transition from sharing to solving as employees increasingly discover their interests are aligned with widely divergent teams across the organisation.
The value of the Collaboration Value Maturity Canvas is as a tool of alignment and one that reflects the fractal nature of collaboration in large organisations. The Canvas brings people together to see what they share and how their individual and team contributions to collaboration can achieve wider goals. Like Kahane’s idea of stretch collaboration, the Canvas does not deliver a strict plan but shapes a series of experiments to tackle the challenges of collaboration in the wider outer loop. The Canvas is not a process or a recipe. It becomes a map as people take the initial pathways and then build out their own.
We shouldn’t need everyone to go experience the challenges of business development in strange markets to build cultures of enterprise collaboration in the modern workplace. What we need is leaders and teams that are prepared to work out loud and focus on the opportunities of alignment in the broader domain of the organisation and its goals.
Simon Terry enables collaboration in organisations through Working Out Loud and using the Collaboration Value Maturity model approach. The Collaboration Value Maturity Canvas is a 2-hour workshop to enable organisations to discover the essential elements of alignment in their collaboration strategy. Get in touch to learn more.
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