How to become a truly great collaborator

Collaboration has been a buzzword in offices for some years now.

The jury is out, however, on whether most business leaders and workers really practise what they preach – that is, working openly with others in a sharing culture to achieve goals or better outcomes for the business. The issue has become even more important, and complex, given that so many people are working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following steps can help.

1. Change your mindset

Leaders and managers may think they are collaborative when they are not, according to Joel Barolsky, a management consultant with Barolsky Advisors.

“In reality, they’re not collaborative but merely collegiate, in the sense that they get on well and are happy to socialise together, but they don’t really work as a team,” he says.

The transition to being collaborative requires people to come together, share resources, communicate openly and solve problems as a unit, whether that occurs face to face, or through digital platforms.

“That’s when the real benefit of collaboration occurs,” Barolsky adds.

2. Think about your clients and team, not yourself

The prevailing culture in some firms is for individual executives or partners to ‘own’ client relationships or ‘hoard’ clients, rather than treating the work as an asset of the broader business. Barolsky says firms need to embrace the idea of serving ‘our client’, not ‘my client’ because trying to achieve smart collaboration in an individualistic culture is difficult.

A good starting point to effect change is to make a conscious effort to engage multiple team members on a client matter as part of an integrated service approach. For example, in tackling cybersecurity issues remember that this is not just a technology issue; it is also a cultural, communications, HR, marketing and legal problem.

“More and more businesses are facing these wicked problems that don’t narrowly fit into one particular discipline and which will often need more than just one type of professional to solve,” Barolsky says.

Such a cultural switch can be clunky at first because of the possible need to hold more meetings and manage more people, a difficulty that is accentuated during the current pandemic.

“But it can actually be fun and you end up solving bigger problems and having more impact with clients.”

3. Understand the financial imperative

As arguably the world’s most successful business, Google has benefited from internal collaboration (ensuring employees spend most of their time interacting with others, rather than being in solitary activity) and helping clients become more collaborative (deploying document applications that let people work remotely on shared projects).

Is it worth the switch for your business, though? Harvard professor Heidi Gardner has no doubt after conducting a 10-year study into the benefits of collaboration in professional service firms.

Her book, Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos, reveals that firms which effectively integrate cross-team solutions to solve clients’ problems will significantly outperform those that just rely on solo specialists.

The bottom line, she says, is that partners can earn up to four times as much revenue when they involve more colleagues in client matters.

4. Invest in technology that unites teams

Gardner also encourages businesses to embrace technology that makes it easier for employees to enjoy a collaborative culture, with social-distancing rules highlighting this goal. Messaging apps, shared calendars, employee experience hubs, survey platforms – they can all streamline processes and enhance communication. The emphasis must be on seamless digital technology that is reliable, which may require updating cloud infrastructure to ensure remote employees can work in a cyber-safe environment away from the office.

Applications such as Performance Leader allow people across an organisation to share a client or industry sector plan and then work together to implement it, monitor progress and give feedback.

A Harvard study reveals that the main barrier to collaboration is a ‘siloed’ operation in which there is a lack of communication and interaction across departments, with 67 per cent of respondents highlighting the issue.

5. Be smart with rewards and recognition

If your business rewards individual performance over collective performance, it becomes difficult for employees to share, communicate and collaborate.

So think about measuring results and rewarding teamwork and overall business achievements rather than the outcomes of a single person. Rewards do not just have to be monetary either; simple recognition of a great team effort can often be just as powerful. In the present social-distancing mode, asking team members to join a quick videoconference to praise a staff member who has outperformed can be a powerful motivational action for the whole team. 

Barolsky warns that some firms obsess about measurement and rewards when it comes to encouraging collaboration in the belief that such programs have to be perfect. Paralysis by analysis is the resulting risk.

6. Set up a collaboration agenda

To ensure that collaboration is not just a hollow goal, Barolsky suggests creating a detailed collaboration agenda that can quickly be adjusted if dramatic events such as COVID-19 occur.

This tool allows you to list real or potential problems the firm or its clients face; identifies departments or third parties that should play a role; outlines actions that are required; earmarks those who should lead the project; and sets definitive deadlines.

“Being quite specific and granular and describing behaviours, not just broad intentions, is really important,” Barolsky says.