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How to Drive Collaboration Across Your Organization

By Nancy Bach - June 21, 2018

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We all know that two heads are generally better than one. In the areas of continuous improvement (CI) and operational excellence (OpEx), the collaboration of people working in teams is particularly valuable in driving synergy and delivering better results faster.

Given that this relationship is good, how do we achieve partnering across an organization? Getting collaboration across your organization isn’t particularly difficult to do, but it does require several intentional foundational elements.

Ensure Strategic Alignment

Collaboration involves getting team members working together toward the same objectives. For this to happen, the organization must first have objectives. These goals must be aligned and communicated.

Without this alignment, the level of collaboration will be similar to that achieved by herding cats—in other words, none. People may be working hard, but their efforts will not drive synergy and may, in fact, be counterproductive between teams.

Ideally, an organizational strategy is created for a multi-year period using the Hoshin Kanri (or similar) process that engages people at all levels and across all functions of the organization in building a challenging but achievable vision and plan for execution. This creates alignment in thinking. Communicating this strategy is not only functionally important for ensuring execution effectiveness, but it also becomes an inspirational foundation for collaboration.

In alignment with the overall organizational strategy, functional strategies are also developed. This includes the strategy for operational excellence, intertwined with other working elements.

Set Expectations and Provide Training

Team members need to have clear expectations for collaborative behavior, including a definition of roles and responsibilities. Establish communications requirements and foster trust. One simple operating principle is: “Say what you’re going to do and do what you said you would do.”

While it’s easy to say “Let’s all get along,” collaboration involves much more than just teamwork and conflict avoidance. In fact, collaboration is most effective when questioning and debate are integral parts of the process. Without this internal positive friction, teams tend to produce lesser outcomes that are simply groupthink around the same old solutions.

With questioning, debate, discussion, and “what if” thinking, teams can develop and stress test concepts to find and fix weak points. Even before implementation, outcomes are battle-hardened, with clear performance expectations and contingency plans.  

To help all these behaviors along, provide facilitators or facilitation training in concepts such as fostering creativity, systematic problem solving, decision-making, potential problem analysis, risk assessment, conflict resolution, and team norming.

Use Rewards and Role Modeling

Our school systems and most workers’ pay plans are generally set up to reward individual achievement. While few companies are likely to shift to compensation plans fully based on team efforts, it’s important to build team recognition and rewards into any plan that relies on collaboration.

Cross collaboration between functions is a big must-have for many development, problem-solving, and implementation teams. And, it’s imperative that leaders from the organization model this cross collaboration. Any evidence of finger-pointing, blaming, or unwillingness to help from a functional leader quickly tells his or her employees that it’s okay, even preferred, to focus only on functional needs, not cross collaboration.

Because individuals in cross-functional teams generally report hierarchically to diverse departments, they need some form of reward and recognition to motivate their active participation in the collaborative team. This is generally not a financial reward, but more often involves social recognition and team celebration.

The old standby of rewarding a team achievement with t-shirts illustrates an important principle. Make sure ALL collaborators get the t-shirt, not just the team members from the specific functional department.

If people are forced into collaboration efforts and don’t get something from it, they will tend to work on the things that are being rewarded. When you want to encourage collaboration, be sure you can provide a favorable answer to this question for all participants: “What’s in it for me?”

Foster Collaboration, Not Competition

At the same time that you set up a team for collaboration, think about those not in the specific team. Don’t set up competition that leads to silo thinking or dysfunctional behavior. For example, if team collaboration creates competition across shifts in a multi-shift operation, subtle competitive actions can reduce overall effectiveness. This is generally not a big problem, but something to watch for. Ensure collaboration drives you towards achieving the optimum results for the overall organization rather than sub-optimizing individual units.

Don’t Forget Virtual Collaboration

In the modern business world, team members may be working from home or from anywhere in the world. Collaboration with off-site participants is just as important as with on-site team members, but achieving this type of cross collaboration can be more difficult.

Ideally, members of virtual teams will have the opportunity to meet face-to-face early in the team establishment. Use videoconferencing as much as possible to ensure that body language can be a part of the communications between virtual team members. Good meeting prep with expectations and follow-ups with notes are very important, especially when participants may have different native languages.

For virtual teams and all other collaborative efforts, communication is critical to success.

If you’d like more guidance and support on collaboration or other operational excellence needs, get in touch with EON. We can help.

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