The Technology of Collaboration

by Wendy Barta and Joe Laipple, Ph.D.

Consider this: A state of the art facility with new equipment and a newly hired, energized workforce in competition with a facility that was originally built during the Civil War, with equipment as old as 1902, with a seemingly entrenched, seasoned workforce. Would it surprise you to know that the Civil War era facility outperformed the state of the art facility? Want to know how they did this?

If you asked the people working in that antiquated facility, they would tell you their success came through collaboration, getting a high degree of willing engagement from the entire workforce, and ensuring each leader had a multiplier effect that influenced others. They worked together to come up with decisions and solutions that activated an entire region to outperform other regions with significant technical advantages.

One of the hallmarks of collaboration is not only tolerance but encouragement of different perspectives: one leader in the facility was very results-driven, another was very process-driven and yet another was people-oriented. The leaders leveraged their differences to stimulate open discussion and disagreement before making important decisions and taking action. They met regularly to share ideas and information about what was happening to affect a better outcome.

The leadership team had a clear focus on the bottom line and business results; yet they knew that sustainable change happened only when the large workforce got involved and believed that what they were doing made a difference. Rather than simply serving up answers to their teams or telling people what to do, managers focused on asking questions and soliciting ideas that created ownership. They were able to create a positive view of change by creating opportunity for the workforce to customize it and make it work in circumstances specific to the location. By collaborating with their teams, they helped the entire workforce owned the change they created. As a result, they were able to sustain improvements and far surpass and out perform their colleagues in spite of superior technology.

Interestingly, searching the term “collaboration” leads to information on cloud-based technology and platforms that are “must haves” in order to work effectively with others. Additional searching leads to plenty of advice on how to maximize use of mobile devices and other virtual means to assemble the contributions of a team and manage a project. Unfortunately for those wanting to do something to encourage collaboration, the search results yield far less about the actual process of collaborating. If you are relying on the internet to give you a clue about how to collaborate effectively, the computer and internet present self-serving solutions and you might miss the most important point—collaboration is an human endeavor.

Successful collaboration is an interaction among individuals that inspires sharing ideas and working together to achieve a common purpose. Our story about the leadership team at the Civil War era facility that outperformed its competition illustrates that the essence of collaboration starts with an exchange of ideas on how to approach a challenge. This creates opportunity for the discussion to explore options in such a way that the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole. The “AHA!” moments and convergence on “What if we tried this?” ideas that are generated within a dialogue help foster innovation and creativity in addition to aligning a team toward the approach they have created together. We find that when people truly collaborate with each other to create a solution, they share the risk and vested interest in seeing the solution succeed and sustaining any changes that may come 
with it.

Collaborating isn’t always a harmonious process. Getting people or groups to work together may inherently involve issues related to sharing turf or resources that can cause conflict and resistance. It can rub up against the fundamental wiring and evolution of our neurobiology. 
Individuals are challenged to share leadership and may find themselves in unfamiliar territory of being an architect for collaboration rather than a lone visionary or idea generator. Delving into this unfamiliar territory can serve up a dose of fear; fear that as a leader one might have to give up some of that turf or appear vulnerable to their team. The brain’s response under these circumstances is to protect us, preserve our interests, or perhaps simply create a a ‘fight or flight’ response, and shut down the possibility of working together. When this happens, we effectively put our shields up to create a barrier between the perceived threat and ourselves. Knowing how to regulate (see TripleRC) our own emotions and the emotions of the team becomes an important skill to master, and building trust with the team is essential to harvesting the best collective outcome. In a well-regulated team, the shields are down and the team is open to the possibilities that venturing into new territory can bring.

So if you agree that collaboration is more than technology and that collaborating is essentially human, then we are on the same page and can move to “what’s next.” We have to determine first if collaboration is right for the situation, how to get ready and what it will look like in a specific organization and culture. It is daunting to demonstrate collaboration versus “buying it off the shelf,” but the dividends will pay off tremendously if you are willing to cultivate the kind of work that will make great things happen—things that are simply not possible when we work alone. Below are a few tips to help make collaboration work 
real time.

  1. Assess Readiness to collaborate. Let’s face it, collaboration isn’t for every situation and even under the best circumstances there are factors to be considered. Getting groups or individuals to work together effectively is challenging and you should consider things like competition for resources (time, budget, and capacity), potential for conflicting interests or cultural factors that may be barriers to a good outcome.

  2. Believe that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Some work is best done by individuals but when you are looking for creative, innovative solutions and can appreciate that multiple perspectives will net you a better outcome than a single perspective, collaborating is the right approach.

  3. Build a Framework and capability to collaborate that is based, first, on how you want people to interact with each other in your organization. Creating a process that includes identifying the challenge, forming the right teams, soliciting ideas, making decisions, and managing accountability need to be considered.

  4. Communicate!

  5. Learn how to manage the neurobiology of collaboration so that you can effectively create an environment where the shields are down and the team is open to possibility.

  6. Ok … get a tool if you really need one, just as long as you aren’t relying on it to be your magic elixir.