Leading Collaboration: It’s About Connecting, Not Calm

You have decided that collaboration is an important company value and critical to its culture. However, what does that mean in practice to a leader? Consider the following scene:

Leading-Collaboration-Connecting-Not-CalmLeader: Okay, how are we doing on the Xerxes project? Engineer, how is the programming going?

Engineer: It’s going, but it would go a whole lot better if Sales hadn’t come back in with a bunch of new requirements when we were about to finish the first phase.

Leader: Sales, what have you got to say?

Sales was busy tapping away on his phone. After he had sensed the room getting very quiet around him, he looked up and appeared irritated.

“Um, what? Sorry, I was answering a client request.”

Eye roll from Engineer.

Leader: Engineer wants to know why you came in with new last minute requirements.

Sales: I didn’t.  The customer did, and ‘the customer is always right!’

Engineer: Except when it produces the wrong result, i.e., scope creep and a more expensive project.

Sales: I can’t help it if you can’t manage your guys.

Engineer leans forward in his chair, ready to attack.

Leader intervenes.

Leader: Hold on. Project Manager, where are you on managing the fee?

Project Manager: I am running as fast as I can, but it’s hard to price something when—

Sales: Maybe you’ve been running in the wrong direction—

Project Manager: Excuse me! I was TRYING to say; it’s hard to price something when you haven’t heard about it.

Sales and Engineer: Haven’t HEARD? Where have you been?

Leader: Okay, people, enough!  This is hardly helping our customer.

Common Stumbling Blocks in Collaboration

Sound familiar? Collaboration is all the rage in concept. In reality, it bumps up against the age-old problems of how teams work or do not work together. Too often, collaboration gets equated with calm, collected behavior. In reality, it’s the same old messiness that appears anytime you put more than one person in a room, namely:

  • Important information does not get delivered.
  • Team members tap away at their phones rather than being in the meeting.
  • Conversation gets interrupted.
  • People defend themselves rather than listen.
  • The ultimate goal of helping the customer gets lost.

Four Essential Steps Toward Team Collaboration

Collaboration suggests that everyone is on the same page both as to the goals and their implementation. In reality, that is most likely to happen if the leader takes the following steps:

  1. Create project goals up front, with concrete steps to get there.
  2. Get buy-in from everyone on the team for the goals and steps.
  3. Make sure the team creates and agrees to the rules of engagement for how it will work together to execute on the goals.
  4. Enforce the rules of engagement and inspire the team to do the same.

Sound straightforward and easy? It should be, except for one thing. It involves dealing with the humans.  And as we know, humans come equipped with agendas, life histories, and attitudes that may or may not support our goals and rules. Without that support, however, the team collaboration is moot.

The Fifth Essential Step: Creating Connection to Create Collaboration

To win support, leaders must negotiate with their team members and teach them to negotiate well with each other. The most collaborative and high performing teams hold high standards and commitment around collaboration. That doesn’t mean just agreeing, but learning to disagree, learn about each other’s needs and pressures and come to an agreement.

All this requires time, patience and a willingness to explore the individual team members’ unknown agendas to find and create buy-in. Too often leaders avoid taking that time, failing to see the importance of spending it that way. Even more often, leaders avoid it because the goals are controversial and charged with conflict.

To make goals and rules of engagement work, a leader has to step into uncomfortable places, places where others may disagree, challenge or duck responsibility. That is the job of leadership. To achieve that requires you to dig in and know what you want and care about. That will give you ballast to withstand resistance to trying new ideas or even harder, changing ideas already in place. The ultimate goal is to connect with your constituents and motivate them to help make things happen, productively.

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