The Art of Collaboration in Leadership

October 17, 2016


A highly Engaging Leader will be the Master of Collaboration.


"Collaboration" is indeed the buzz word of the moment. However, collaboration is only one component of successful Leadership and there is a danger when it is mis-used.


Let's start with defining collaboration. 


A white paper on the subject of Collaborative Leadership from Oxford Leadership says... "By collaborative leadership, we mean the process of engaging collective intelligence to deliver results across organisational boundaries when ordinary mechanisms of control are absent."


The starting place here is therefore in understanding what the present mechanisms of control are. For example; it would look something like this; When our buyer does this, it triggers that, and we analyse the outcome this way and report it here. These are mechanisms of control in a process model.


In a human behavioural model, it might look something like: We do that, this way. In order to change the way we do that, there needs to be a process of collaborative input from each appropriate sector of the business. This is part of our quarterly review process, and you will be invited to participate, as defined appropriate by the business. You will participate by speaking to the aspects of the review that are within your sector's responsibilities.


So where does collaboration belong in this sampled model? Well, it can be in the review of outcomes stage, where a team from each appropriate sector of the business comes together to determine if the outcomes are the best outcomes for the business and where they could be improved: sales, production, delivery, service, profit, branding...


In my opinion, using practical experience, collaboration works best when given a specific purpose. In the given sample above, the group coming together is focused upon a number of review points. They are looking at everything from pre-sales through to after sales service. The gap within which this group is being directed to work is extremely wide. 


If instead, the Leader broke the total sum into its critical parts, and then formed focused review groups to each stage, it would look a little like this... a) Purpose of product review. Why do we have this product in our range? b) Who is our key buyer? c) What problem does it solve for the buyer? d) Who else is now providing this solution? e) Is it a total solution or a part solution?...


The collaboration comes in at every stage of the process. Ideally it will be part of your organisational blue-print at every level, not just review of existing but in development and innovation of new. Give ownership to people, empower them with resources and information and even mentoring, then allow them the space to grow. A controlling Leader is no Leader at all, they are Managers.


It starts with the Leader setting an outcome for the group and then empowering them to navigate their way through to that outcome.


The Leader should check that the people involved are appropriate, and they have access to all they need to deep-dive the review (resources, information etc.).


In a business where collaboration is an over-use, the above model would instead look something like this... Let's all get together to discuss our products. I want everyone's ideas and input as to how we can improve our business outcomes. The floor is open for comment and you can submit your ideas in a number of formats (email, meet with your direct report, give me a buzz to discuss...). Whilst there is sound upsides to be had in seeking input from all employee's in an open-format, without steering the input into a purpose, it can turn into chaos or worse still, apathy.


Often, in this rather exaggerated, and yet often found, model of collaboration, there is lots of talk but very little ownership or action. Frustration levels in employee's rise, as they put ideas forward and see no response in action. The forward cost to this model is employees disengage and start to NOT collaborate - there's no evidence that it is a worthwhile experience. Worse still, levels of respect for the leadership drop.


There is a crucial part to collaboration in order for it to thrive in your organisation. The qualification of 'cost' of outcomes. Have you noticed how people tend to hoard or cling-on to their own ideas or 'way' of doing things, even in the presence of evidence that there is a 'better' way?


Change management is a fundamental key to effective collaborative outcomes.


Your people need to be trained, yes trained, to widen their paradigms of how they think about their methodologies, so they become comfortable with discomfort. They need to be in the habit of embracing change and seeking constant improvement. People say they are ok with this - but believe me, many are not when push comes to shove.


Imagine this, you have honed your skills in baking bread. Over time, you have found that using a specific way of kneading your dough for a good 10 minutes will create a high-rise loaf that you and your family love to eat. In comes the Mother-in-Law. She shows you how her way of kneading, that has been used through family generations, will produce a much better loaf. Before you take on a new way, your mind wants to be supported from the now to the new. The internal mind-talk ranges from person to person...


Julie thinks "I love that my mother-in-law is showing care by handing down family recipes to me."


Amie thinks "how rude, to come in and presume her loaf is better than mine."


Josie thinks "I'll watch her and say the right things to be respectful but then keep with what I prefer."


Peter thinks "If I wanted a better way I would have asked, I'm shutting this down and putting her in her place."


We could go on, and on. This is the part that gets in the way of effective collaboration. Highly effective Leaders have learnt how to BE this model and TRAIN this model. It must be in the BEING first, if the organisation is to model congruently.


The collaboration group will therefore add the question "who would be affected by this change?" to every session. Ideally, you would then ensure this group is added to the collaborative process. Give them a voice. Give them evidence that they have been heard.


Collaboration is a new word for an old Leadership practice, for highly effective Leaders.


It's about People. How a Leader makes their people feel matters more than almost anything else. 


Collaboration at its best is inclusive, without boundaries of what can be put forward, encouraging of 'outside the box' thinking, looped back to a purposeful outcome and constant. 


Leaders, I encourage you to seek training so you master the art of collaborative Leadership. Your employees will thank you and your profit line will reflect it.







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