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The “Heart” of Collaboration

June 17, 2011 by Amy Gilburg

I’ve been thinking about collaboration and was pleasantly surprised to discover my high school French becoming useful. My thoughts weren’t about how to collaborate, but more focused on what keeps colleagues, teams, divisions, departments, classmates, etc…from achieving this higher state.

The one word that kept creeping back into my thoughts was COURAGE, and this is where the French comes in. The root word of courage comes from the French word, Coeur, which means heart.  It takes conviction, desire or heart to do something that seems risky. For many leaders, changing how business is done to create an environment where people can actively collaborate can be RISKY.

So what are the risks? 

One way to consider this question is to identify how the culture of an organization views collaboration or, on the flip side, competition? What are people rewarded for? What are the performance standards and measurements of success? What are the subtle and not so subtle messages that employees hear? Our brain is wired to either compete or collaborate. These are opposite strategies and are not easily reconciled.  What would happen if a leader began to deviate from the current, familiar culture? Would it be a bit risky to buck the status quo even for something as desirable and powerful as collaboration?

A few years back, I worked with a leader that was tasked with combining two departments as part of a significant merger. Because it was a research organization with many scientists as employees, we had to look at the prevailing culture of scientists in general and then specifically in that organization.  It became clear that our scientific leader, David, had a tough job ahead of him.  Not only did the culture in his organization promote competition, but all of the schooling required to become a PhD. encouraged at best individualism and at worst, competition.  David had 9 months and he needed a plan.

He confessed that he was tired and dreading the same old reorg process that seemed to leave people dispirited, frustrated, and resentful. That is, make the plan and then tell the staff how it would work. There had to be a better way! With a great deal of conviction and trepidation (AKA COURAGE), David decided to enlist the two affected teams to develop the merger strategy.  There were no precedents for this approach and David’s boss was luke warm to the idea of “giving all the power” to the staff but David persisted. If they were going to have to combine departments and work collaboratively (e.g. meld research projects, share resources, co-author results, etc…) why not begin by collaborating on how the merger/reorg should work?

The first thing we looked at were the actions and practices that he had control over that would help build enough trust to enable the staff to try some new behaviors together. We focused on three key components to building trust—Keeping Agreements, Self-Disclosure, and identifying Common Values.  Once the scientists developed some trust for each other and David, he hoped they would become more open to collaborating with one another, and embracing the ultimate merger. 

He started with scheduling regular all-hands meetings to discuss the possible merger and other organizational changes on the horizon. In those meetings he asked everyone to take one minute to “Check In”.  Interestingly, David really struggled with this one small action. It was an act of courage for him to try a new behavior and trust that it would yield the results he was looking for. His concerns ran the gamut of lacking competency to being ridiculed for being too “touchy feely”. 

Before his opening meeting David admitted that he was nervous and worried that the whole thing would fail but he was committed to trying. He asked each of his scientists to share one thing that was important or inspiring about the work they did.  At first there was grumbling, but as individuals began to share what they cared about David saw nodding and increased attention. As the scientists “self-disclosed” common threads appeared and it was clear they had more in common than they had originally believed. In an effort to signal his commitment to “keeping agreements,” David committed to beginning each meeting with a “check-in” and consistently started and ended each meeting on time…yes a small, seemingly inconsequential action, but important.  Although concerned that he would become known as a stickler or be seen as uptight, David doggedly followed through on those small details that many organizations deem inconsequential to getting the work done.

Over the ensuing months, David held many meetings to discuss the merger, the risks and rewards of collaboration, the roles and responsibilities of a collaborative team, ways to make decisions and possible agreements that might ensure there were clear guidelines and protocols for worst-case scenarios.  With clear parameters from David, working groups came up with several workable options on how the two departments could merge and how the research projects could be combined. In addition, a separate working group developed an internal mission statement that clearly defined collaboration as a core principal.

Through out the entire process David shared all the information that he could. He clarified where the scientists could make decisions or influence his thinking and where he had ultimate authority. It took time and persistence but the end result was worth it. Everyone had been involved and when it came time to roll out the final strategy there was little resistance—slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

David’s willingness to follow his convictions, to press on in the face of skepticism, to try something different, even risky, like a check- in required courage. There were many moments where David acted outside his comfort zone and the only thing he had to hold onto was his belief that there had to be a better way—a way that his heart and mind could align with.

Not long ago David retired. He regards his time during the merger as one of the top highlights of his career. I asked David to share some of what he learned about collaboration:

  • Be willing to try something, anything, different than what has been occurring
  • Be prepared to act courageously if you are expecting others to do so as well
  • Start small, take baby steps
  • You don’t need lots of trust, just enough to get started and it will grow
  • Find a role for the naysayers, don’t marginalize them but put them to work
  • Be as open and transparent as possible
  • Trust that people want to collaborate and work in an environment that has high trust
  • Try pilots or experiments and learn from mistakes or failures
  • Take the time upfront even if you are feeling pressured to “get to work!” to create guidelines and agreements on how individuals and teams will work together – having a road map is really helpful
  • Get help! Not just for the strategy but the support needed to take risks!

Bonne Chance!

(“Good Luck”—again, from high school French!)