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Think/Decide/Act 2: Collaboration - The Real McCoy? a blog about collaboration

Think/Decide/Act 2: Collaboration - The Real McCoy? a blog about collaboration

Most organisations recognise the need to ensure the potential inherent in the wisdom and experience is not locked away within silos and furrows of organisation design and culture. McKinsey and Harvard have been producing evidence, for over 10 years, of the value of more effective collaboration across a number of dimensions including revenue generation, cross selling, productivity, resource allocation etc. How can organisations really focus on the cultural and structural factors that determine how effective collaboration can be pursued?

I was once running a leadership programme for a group of middle managers drawn from across a large manufacturing company. Through a number of formal and informal discussions, several of the participants identified that they were all impacted by, and had a stake in, the success of a major company-wide implementation of ‘lean thinking’. Spontaneously, they recognised both a shared need and a high level of interdependency amongst themselves.  There and then they formed an ‘unofficial’, informal group in order to work together. The result: a six month reduction in implementation time with the huge financial benefits that it brought. It was authentic collaboration in action.

What is authentic collaboration? ‘The Real McCoy’? It is when a group of people genuinely work together; pooling insights, exploiting their collective potential for insight and creativity and acting cohesively on the basis of a deep and shared purpose and commitment – in short it is group that can think, decide and act together. (As discussed in a previous blog1).

What is an organisation like in which this level of collaboration is possible and desired by both company and employees? Our experience of exploring and working with this issue suggests that there are two broad enablers that need to exist to a significant extent for collaboration to happen:

  • Firstly people need to feel involved in the bigger organisational picture, thinking about a broader sets of needs and ambitions than their own immediate agenda and feeling positively connected to other groups of people within the organisation.
  • Secondly people need to feel enabled to meet, to form alliances, problem-solve and take action together (ie think / decide / act). The culture and processes that facilitate this need to both be sufficiently present to allow successful collaboration to happen.

Two very common types of false collaboration in organisations exist:

  • ‘Political Engagement’ where people are ‘consulted with’ but real decisions are restricted to the one or few. Often there is nothing wrong with this in itself; it is a useful way of testing new ideas and refining thinking but it is not true collaboration. People are not jointly exploring a problem; sharing perspectives and creating an innovative solution which they act upon.
  • The second type of ‘false collaboration’ is the infamous ‘talking shop’ in which a group of people gather together to review important or critical issues – but lacking enablement that is all that they do: talk. Of course a group might choose to take the power into their own hands and enable themselves - a European FD recently told me how he was a member of a global team of FDs who met as a ‘forum’ and together realised that their role and purpose was a bit woolly and so created a much more decision-taking terms of reference and got on and “did some real work!”

When building a more collaborative culture we need to analyse what might lie behind these broad enablers that will promote or inhibit it. And this requires a disciplined piece of analysis to enable effective intervention. Understanding of what is shaping behaviour within an organisation is often fuzzy and superficial. In developing a ‘Collaboration Audit2’ for organisations, we have found for instance, that what may initially be thought of as an inhibitor or lack of commitment (involvement) was actually a more to do with over-complex decision making processes and time-resource problems (enablement).

It is by exploring and identifying these underlying issues within an organisation and then developing targeted interventions that significant benefits or authentic collaboration - the real McCoy – can be gained.  The third and final blog in this series will focus on how this may be achieved.

Key Point Summary

Authentic collaboration is inhibited or promoted by established cultural assumptions about behaviours, including decision making behaviours, within an organisation.

There are two broad enablers of collaboration: the extent to which employees as a whole feel ‘involved’ with other people and the challenges and opportunities that the whole organisation faces AND the extent to which they feel enabled to take the initiative to work together to respond to these.

Key Question: which is more likely in your organisation: collaboration; a talking shop or political engagement?

1 Think/Decide/Act: a case for a little organisational anarchy
2 The Apter Development Collaboration Potential Survey


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