Collaborating On Your Own
by Robert B. Denhardt
Director of Leadership Programs, Price School of Public Policy
University of Southern California
Collaboration and its many benefits are often described at a macro level – that is, what can working effectively together across functional boundaries do for the organization? But it’s important also to think of collaboration at the micro level – what can you, as an individual, do to bring people together to reap the benefits of effective collaboration?
The overall problem is a familiar one and well-understood in the abstract. Organizations develop functional groupings that bring together people with similar interests and work skills. It’s that old “division of labor” thing. But over time these groups tend to develop a more inward focus and build walls around themselves that are hard for others to penetrate.
For example, a high tech start-up begins with a small group where everyone does everything. But then, with skill, ambition, and often more than a little luck, the company grows rapidly to the point where the functions of business development/sales, marketing, customer support, technology, and product development become increasingly separate and distinct.
Often then the interests of each group become more important to its members than the interests of the larger organization. Those in the group even speak of the importance of their managers “defending” the group from others and “crusading” to increase the power and resources of the group.
But we know that this situation is at odds with the overall interests of the larger organization. No one person, no one group has all the answers. Indeed, for an increasing number of organizations, it is the technology/product that everything else is dependent on, so there must be a common understanding across the organization around this key element.
For this reason, much of the work, especially when it comes to developing and implementing a new product or underlying technology, requires bringing people together from different functional groups to leverage the knowledge and expertise of each. Such collaboration, incidentally, not only builds more effective solution to problems, but also increases the “buy-in” from all parties.
There are some things the CEO or COO can do to build collaboration. These range from “enforcing” collaboration to building a culture of collaboration. But where the “big boss” is involved there are tendencies for the effort to dissolve into posturing, self-promotion, and “turf battles.” But what if someone lower in the organization acted to bring about collaboration? How might that look? (Indeed, the most effective strategy for the top leader is to encourage and reward collaborative efforts throughout the organization.
Based on my years of teaching and consulting, I would suggest four things individuals can do to promote collaboration across functional boundaries.
1) Be there and be present. Woody Allen said that 80% of success is showing up, a theme that was explored in the classic comedy “Being There” (starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine). For the individual manager, that means spending time visiting with others across the organization (and beyond) on a regular basis – not necessarily with an agenda in mind, but just to see what common interests and ideas emerge. In this effort, you are simply developing relationships, not necessarily trying to achieve a specific project goal. You are building up “relationship capital” that will come in handy as things move along.
2) Define a part of your job as “building bridges.” You have to take care of your own group, but you can allocate a considerable percentage of your time to working across boundaries, both internal and external. I would say that an absolute minimum for most managerial positions is twenty-five percent, an allocation that should grow to the extent i) your own group is operating smoothly “on its own,” and ii) to the extent you can enlist help in internal management, positioning you are the “external” face of the group. You’ll be surprised at how often working across boundaries produces results – how good and collaborative ideas emerge from casual conversations. And remember, the default answer to any request is “Yes.” Each “yes” you can deliver on builds the relationship and strengthens a line of collaboration.
3) Don’t track changes. When Janet and I work on articles or books together, we don't use “track changes.” We just trade the article or a chapter back and forth, with the rule that you can make any changes you want – but you can’t use track changes. Then it goes to the other co-author with the same instruction. After going back and forth a while, you forget which changes are yours and which are someone else's. That takes the ego out of the process - and ego is one of the most damaging roadblocks to collaboration. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you not track changes in documents (but that might help), but anything you can do to eliminate the influence of ego will be helpful in your collaborations.
4) Bring people together. You should also not hesitate to convene meetings of those at your level and below – though sometimes even inviting those above – to work on a specific issue. You may wonder whether you have the “authority” to do so, but authority is actually what caused the problem in the first place, so don’t worry about that. People will likely accept your invitation. But the difficult part is how to facilitate the meeting. (Meaning don’t try to run the meeting.) Recognize that people in the meeting are essentially equals representing different skills sets and different interests. Make sure all are heard and recognized for their contributions. It’s hard to lead when no one is in charge, but that’s increasingly what the world of leadership is about.
These are just four of the many ways an individual can bring people together to build bridges and to encourage a more collaborative way of working. And we already know the benefits that can bring! And, guess what, even if you approach all of these actions in a humble, low-key fashion, seeking no personal credit (which is how you should go about this), in the end, you will be the one who gets the credit and some great stories for when you interview for the next position!
Robert Denhardt is the Director of Leadership Programs in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California (USC) and Director of the Executive Master of Leadership program at USC. He is the author of a dozen books on leadership and management, including, The Dance ofLeadership (with Janet Denhardt), Book: Just Plain Good Management, and Book: The Pursuit of Significance.