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Collaboration: On the Field & In the Office

February 14, 2012
at 3:41 pm PST

Collaboration is great. But it’s not a Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, if-you-build-it-they-will-come Field of Dreams scenario. Alas, if all it took was plowing under a corn field and putting down some chalk stripes, I might be out of a job. And out of corn flakes.

We talk a lot about technology and process, but sometimes omit the human aspect. All the technology in the world won’t do much without people using it — unless you’re watching the Terminator machines attempt their takeover. And then there’s always HAL 9000. But those guys are a lot more interested in domination than collaboration anyway.

An organization’s culture is a critical component to successful collaboration. Make all the technology announcements and managerial pronouncements you want – you need an environment that supports collaboration.

All I needed to know about collaboration I learned on the soccer field. OK, not all of it. But some good stuff.

Beware the Beehive: Ever seen a group of six-year-olds play soccer? Imagine the ball is a hive. Now imagine a swarm of 20 kids around the ball, kicking frenetically just to put a toe on it, and two lonely goalies at either end of the pitch watching for gophers and picking dandelions. This the likely impetus for the invention of shin guards, while being amusing  yet wildly ineffective.

Now imagine your work environment in the midst of a fire drill project. Does everyone drop everything to focus on putting out the fire? Granted, if there are actual flames involved, this may be a decent approach – immediately prior to evacuation. But if it’s a metaphorical fire, throwing everyone into the mix to do the same thing at the same time isn’t generally effective. It’s about identifying the talents of individuals and how they contribute to the greater goals, then letting people play their positions. If someone gets pulled into a special project, the other players shift to accommodate and fill in the gaps.

Position the Players: Not everyone has to be good at everything. Let people play their positions – within your team and within cross-functional projects. Share your resources and expertise. You can either hobble through a project with the resources you have or look to the broader organization for key players. Sometimes those are short-term project-based groups. Other times they’re longer-term advisory roles.

An environment that supports collaboration within and across teams and allows people opportunities to lend their skills on special projects, helps everyone develop the broader point of view that comes from interacting with people with different perspectives.

When it came to soccer, I wasn’t a very good attacker, but I was an effective defensive sweeper. I played regularly for a few teams and got picked up for tournaments by teams that needed someone cranky to chase people down and clear the ball out the backfield.

At Cisco, I’m part of a marketing messaging team. Our larger organization has all sorts of other teams, projects, and people with skills I don’t have. But when it comes someone needing my particular skill set – or me needing theirs – our culture is such that we can call on each other for assistance, counsel, reality checks. It doesn’t require managerial decree nor written proclamation, it’s just part of the collaborative atmosphere.

Set the Playground Rules: Do people on your team pass the ball or hoard it as they knock over one another on the way to the goal? A culture that measures individual achievement over all else tends to set up a more competitive culture than a collaborative one. People too concerned about being first to the finish line or having the biggest numbers at the end of the month, aren’t likely to get high marks for “plays well with others.” If you reward them for working together, collaborating, sharing information, and combining ideas, the playground will be a far more peaceful – and productive – place.

Do As I Do: It’s hard to take or trust instruction from a coach who doesn’t play the game, or sits on the sideline with a whistle and a cup of Starbucks. If you sit behind a desk and say “go forth and collaborate,” but don’t follow your own edict, how are people supposed to know how to follow?

Show the way. Talk about successes working on cross-functional projects, use collaboration technologies to engage with others in your organization – use instant messaging, turn on your video on web conferencing calls, post presentations and react to what your teams post in workspaces. Show that you’re engaged and doing exactly what you’re asking them to do for you.

For some organizations, especially where collaboration isn’t a natural tendency among leaders, it may make sense to have someone at the exec level who is specifically focused on collaboration. A special teams coach in the form of a chief collaboration officer.

“The long term responsibility of the CCO would be scaling the program, fostering a collaborative culture, continually evaluating the program and adoption levels, and integrating collaboration within the overall business strategy of the company,” suggests Jacob Morgan in a recent post “Do Organizations Need a Chief Collaboration Officer?

Share the Game Plan: Before a match, a good coach goes through the lineup and highlights strategies for the specific opponent. If Player A and Player B are not playing their usual positions, it helps everyone on the team to know why they’re in a different spot and what they’re supposed to do. But in the workplace, that part of the communication doesn’t always come through. For lots of organizations it’s more like “Clean your room. Because I said so.”

Ideas come from sharing information. Although someone may have an idea of how a project should work from start to finish, sharing only the tactical instructions may get the tasks completed, but it doesn’t allow for others to contribute ideas that may improve the project, broaden its impact, buy into the effort, or just make it move along more quickly.

If leaders share strategy and goals – and invite questions and suggestions — it’s easier for people to get a sense of how their contributions fit into the context of what the organization does. And to feel like part of a team vs. a cog in a wheel.

Recognize Most Valuable Players: Give people credit for their efforts, especially team efforts. Sure, Suzie may have scored the most goals in the game, but other players were feeding her perfect passes. Acknowledge all of the players in the equation, both to give them credit for their collaboration and to encourage them to continue it – and lead others to do the same. Promote successful examples of collaboration, even small ones.

“Performance measures must strike a balance between how well employees carry out their individual roles and how much they contribute to collective outcomes,” say Ron Ricci and Carl Wiese in The Collaboration Imperative: Executive Strategies for Unlocking Your Organization’s True Potential.

Two heads are better than one. If I have an apple and give you an apple, and you have an orange and give me the orange — I have an orange and you have an apple. But put them together and we have fruit salad… That might make a good snack while we’re collaborating. If you I exchange ideas, we both have two ideas. And maybe those two ideas spark two more and suddenly there’s a lot more than a bowl of fruit going on.

Pass the Whistle: Let people lead the way every now and then. The whole command-and-control thing lets you have it your way, but surprise – your way may not always be best. As a leader, it also provides an opportunity to see your team from a different perspective and hopefully notice where strengths and weaknesses exist among not just the people, but the way they communicate and work together. Sharing the front of the room is a good way to empower people and keep them engaged. As a team member, taking the reins for a meeting or a project every now and then can give you a sense of greater value – a part of a whole vs. a means to an end. That may sound harsh to some, but not if you’ve been in that position. It’s all too familiar for a lot of people.

I was never an Olympic caliber soccer player, despite my junior high school dreams of international futbol stardom. But being a part of a team wearing cleats and a numbered jersey while running around in circles chasing a spotted ball gave me a long list of lessons that have come in handy in the office and life in general. And coaching teams taught me even more about how to teach people new skills and create an atmosphere where they would work together, pass the ball, and celebrate not only the scoreboard victories, but the great team efforts as well.

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