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Are Your Collaborative Efforts Falling Flat? Here Are 3 Rules for Success

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As leaders, we like the idea of collaboration, we just don’t like to actually do it. Especially at the highest levels. We tend to feel the pressure of ‘the buck stops here.’ We’re unwilling to bring others into tough decisions. We confuse collaboration with consensus. We like the allure of thinking our decisions are the best for our organizations.

The list unfortunately goes on and includes lack of trust, not wanting our opinions to be ignored, not wanting to share critical information, not having enough time...we convince ourselves that for all these reasons and more, collaboration may not be the best decision. And there is some support for this thinking. In his book Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits That Masquerade as Virtues, Jake Breeden identifies automatic collaboration as one of these bad work habits. One example he gives is, “there is no greater danger to productivity than the standing committee meeting—a team meeting for the sake of a team, a meeting for the sake of a meeting. Allowing your team to unplug demonstrates your trust in them and your respect for their autonomy.”

So why should we collaborate? From my perspective, I know I make better decisions when others are involved. For all of you Words with Friends aficionados, and I am one of them, I’m reminded frequently of how sub-optimized my decisions are. I’m pretty good at this great pastime, but more than half the time I’m reminded that at least five words are better than the word I chose.

In addition to making better decisions, collaboration creates high levels of energy, engagement, and innovation. It ensures that different perspectives are sought out, acknowledged, and appreciated.

Circling back to Breeden’s book, he doesn’t abandon collaboration altogether but instead encourages the reader to appreciate “the rare productive joy of working alone” while finding ways to “make your collaboration accountable.” So how can we make collaboration one of the most effective tools in our toolbox?

Rule #1: Don’t mistake consensus for collaboration.

Consensus is a watered-down alternative to making a decision without any one person being accountable. Collaboration seeks participation—a sharing of ideas and thoughts—and requires a clear understanding that you still own the decision. To be a collaborative leader, you have to be willing to listen to and consider alternative, often differing perspectives from your own. This requires courage and a willingness to be influenced by information not previously considered by you that can be critical to making the best decision for your organization. And it’s okay to be wrong if it leads you to the best decision.

As I was progressing in my career, I was taught that the buck stopped with me and that my decisions better be the right ones. I soon realized that this was a very lonely place. Especially when I was surrounded by a team of brilliant people who really wanted to help and support me. I learned that asking for ideas and support not only made my decisions better but also enriched the relationships I had with my team. I learned that I still owned the decision and could generously give credit to contributors.

Rule #2: Make your collaboration genuine, or it will backfire.

If you are not willing to accept pushback, pushback will still happen, and it won’t be constructive. It may not happen in front of you and it will show up somewhere. It may show up at the water cooler, it may show up as resentful compliance, and it may show up in the form of a resignation. The most recent two candidates we interviewed at Fierce voiced their primary reason for leaving their previous position: the feeling of not being heard, and the lack of appreciation for their efforts. The illusion of inclusion is always apparent. People will feel undervalued and marginalized.

I once worked with an organization that had pre-meetings to all meetings scheduled with senior executives. This was to ensure that no one voiced an opinion different from a predetermined party line. It seemed to me such a terrible waste of time as the purpose was to shut down original thought. Then the entire entourage went to the ‘real’ meeting for the illusion of inclusion. You can probably imagine the ensuing water cooler conversations and the general diminishing of morale over time.

Rule #3: Seek out UN-usual suspects for input.

Invite the quiet voices and internal processors. Seek out your devil’s advocate—he or she often provides a valuable perspective. Consider new employees, as they often see things that longtime employees don’t see, and they bring with them experiences from other organizations. Also, consider bringing in those who may not know anything about your department/business and are either upstream or downstream from your decision. Fresh eyes can lead to new approaches.

I was once in a Fierce Conversations workshop where people were learning our team model. It was an incredibly diverse group (an army colonel, a manager from a retail organization, an individual contributor from a large IT organization, a salon owner, and a few other people from different backgrounds). They selected to work on an issue presented by the colonel. As part of a robust discussion, the salon owner presented an idea that the colonel had never considered and yet felt that it could easily lead to resolving the issue that he had been working on for months. The colonel left saying that he had learned the power of going outside his usual advisors for new ideas and fresh perspectives.

The buck doesn’t have to stop with you. If your collaborative efforts are falling flat, applying these rules can open up new possibilities, and in turn, lead to the best possible decisions.


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