What’s breaking collaboration at the workplace and what you can do about it – Strategies for Effective Collaboration at Work

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What’s breaking collaboration at the workplace and what you can do about it - Strategies for Effective Collaboration at Work


Despite the unprecedented growth in the capabilities of communication tools in recent years to connect to and bring together a lot of people very quickly (something that is both found useful and at the same time feared by even big governments and large corporations) and despite the big changes they (social networking tools) are already bringing to our personal and social lives, effective workplace collaboration remains a challenge.
Being able to communicate faster with more people doesn't necessarily mean that we can now collaborate better.
These tools may even be adding to our distraction at work.
So why is collaboration difficult at the workplace? What makes collaboration ineffective at the workplace? And what can we do to make collaboration effective?

'In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.'
~ Charles Darwin

Any human enterprise is a story of collaboration.
But the story we are more often told is that of competing, of having to out run others to succeed in school, on the playground, in life, in love, and at work.
So then we arrive at our place of work all trained to compete. But to get anything meaningful done we must collaborate. It's a paradox.
Yes, we need to compete for ideas and initiatives at the workplace, or the best wouldn't come forth, but often effective collaboration becomes victim to competing ideas and self-interests at the work place.
This paradox must be resolved for effective collaboration. To do things better.
Throwing incentives, motivational lectures, mandates, processes and programs at the problem, more often than not fail to get the desired results. Mostly because they fail to clarify the Why? What? How? Who? When? or create the necessary motivation for collaboration to work effectively.
But how do we bring about this clarity at the workplace?
Here are some methods we've discovered from people most successful in bringing effective collaboration to work.

The Big Idea

“…First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth… ...This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, material and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization, and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful [inter-agency] rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel…”
~May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy

Everyone wants to part of a big idea. It is something that gives much meaning to their work. People lend themselves more willingly to a big idea. When we define our work not just in terms of the content and immediate rewards for us, but in terms the big difference our work can make, it creates the pull that stretches the team beyond ordinary efforts and differences.
One of the big ideas that drives us as a team is - To support the pursuit of excellence in every enterprise. Because we believe it can be a force for a lot of good.

Shared Vision

“The key venue for freewheeling discourse was the Monday morning executive team gathering, which started at 9 and went for three or four hours. The focus was always on the future: What should each product do next? What new things should be developed? Jobs used the meeting to enforce a sense of shared mission at Apple. This served to centralize control, which made the company seem as tightly integrated as a good Apple product, and prevented the struggles between divisions that plagued decentralized companies.”
~ Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

It's easy to get lost in the details of getting things done. Changes in the business environment, customer expectations and technology landscape, brings in new challenges nearly every day. The exigencies of today can undermine what we plan to build for tomorrow.
Examining the vision we have for the future regularly in order to take in the new learning and ensuring alignment with the daily work, makes it easier for the team to pull together.

Defining the Aim

“It is management's job to direct the efforts of all components toward the aim of the system. The first step is clarification: everyone in the organization must understand the aim of the system, and how to direct his efforts toward it. Everyone must understand the damage and loss to the whole organization from a team that seeks to become a selfish, independent, profit center.” 
“People need to know how their job contributes.”
“A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without the aim, there is no system.”
~ W. Edward. Deming, Out of Crisis

One of most effective thing we've found here is to plot the flow of how work will get done. End to end. As soon as we have this plot, the choices for methods, people, tools etc. begin to show up, making it easier to organize and manage the work.
Knowing how the work flows, makes the inter-dependencies of the team members clear to all and therefore elicits a more collaborative response from them.


“What’s the best way to make progress toward your goal? In our experience, it’s to build a prototype, an early working model that has become a key tool of design thinkers….” 
“The reason for prototyping is experimentation, the act of creating forces you to ask questions and make choices. It also gives you something you can show to and talk about with other people.” 
“Besides speeding up that process of experimentation, prototypes are easy to throw away when they fail. Creativity requires cycling lots of ideas.”
~ Tom Kelly & David Kelly, Creative Confidence, IDEO.

When it comes to building thing we know little about (and that's how it is when we're working on innovating things or on a new piece of technology) prototyping helps us figure things out faster. Everybody involved in building the prototype and working with it quickly picks up the limits, possibilities, and pitfalls.
Prototyping is an antidote to wasteful arguments and costly mistakes that can bring the whole team down.

Creating Checklists

"...it's not because we have bad doctors or bad nurses. We have great people, great drugs. But making all of the steps come together in such a way that nothing falls between the cracks, we're not great at that."
~Dr. Atul Gawande, Surgeon, On the need for Checklists.

The simple checklist has turned out to be amongst the most important developments in medicine. Especially in an emergency care situation where a missed step could be fatal, the checklists help ensure that nothing is missed. It helps coordinate the actions and decisions of the whole team working on the emergency.
The checklist is one of our favorite tools when it comes to pulling together a lot of big and small pieces together to get something done. We have checklists for nearly everything we do. The ticks on a checklist are a simple way to know how things are progressing, who and what is dragging things down and if we have gotten all that needs to be done. It's simple yet powerful.
I will explore some more methods in follow-up blogs. Meanwhile, please do share your ideas & learning on collaboration at the workplace. We're eager to learn.

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