One of life's great truths; people like to be involved in decisions that affect them. Collaboration is a basic human desire. To get it, just invite it. Two examples.
Collaboration—or lack of it—is a cultural phenomenon. You change a culture by creating a more collaborative experiences for people at work. Here are two examples. The first is a manager, deep within the organization, who created a new collaborative setting with her peers. The second is a top leadership team that decided to change its collaboration message to those below.
Initiating Collaboration As A Mid-Manager
Jo-Ann, a second-tier manager in a major manufacturer, had a special assignment: to better coordinate the functions across R&D, marketing, sales, manufacturing, shipping and service. Jo-Ann and I carefully planned an approach that included "Interviewing" (see The Cultural Interview) key people, together with carefully practiced group facilitation techniques (see Making Better Decisions).
At the first meeting, the managers, directors and VPs she invited, were suspicious. Some had wanted to send a subordinate in their place—she took this to mean that they were not on-board. It took Jo-Ann three, very carefully facilitated meetings, where she stood thoroughly neutral on all issues, before attendees trusted her enough to put their real concerns on the table.
It was several more meetings before members allowed the group to make decisions that affected their functions. The group liked their experience and the positive results so much that they continued, expanding the topic to include other cross-functional issues. The Executive Committee noticed Jo-Ann's success and rewarded her with a significant promotion.
You too can invite collaboration from any level in the organization to any other level. It may take some courage, but you can be sure that behind much of people's initial resistance is the common human longing for teamwork and good relationships. If you have a project that affects others, talk with each one personally. Build a relationship. Take your time explaining how your project will affect them or their people. Stay open. Be clear that you don't have the answer. Say something like, "I'd like to pull together everyone affected so we can all find a way to make it work for everyone. I'm planning on inviting . . . . . . . . . If I find a time that suits everyone, could you join us?" This way you can take the lead on collaboration.
If you persevere, most people will eventually join you. Don't be fooled by people's sometime gruff initial response. That is just a defensive reaction to being burned in the past.
Collaboration Begins At The Top
The cultural or system perspective says:
"No event occurs in a vacuum. If you want to understand an event—in this case, why people aren't collaborating—just look at the situation—it will tell you.” (see To Understand Behavior, Look at the Situation, Look at the Culture.)
Ask yourself, "Why aren't people collaborating? What is it in our organization that says, 'Don't collaborate!'"
I know from experience that people don't collaborate, because leaders give the signal not to. This is rarely intentional—I have never found a leader who espouses non-cooperation. However, I have seen many leaders whose personal actions do not demonstrate or invite collaboration. For example, they might be critical of people's suggestions or actions, or they might make decisions without involving the people affected, or they might be generally distant. Whatever the reason, if leaders show collaboration in their daily actions, people throughout the organization will follow their lead.
An Example: Upper Management Sets a Collaborative Tone by Cutting the Criticism
Some time ago I worked with the leadership group of a 5,000-person company located in the southwest. We met for several hours monthly, discussing how to build a more productive company culture. At one of these morning meetings, a manager complained that at lower levels of the company, divisions were not working well together.
In my role as their company culture consultant, I frequently reminded the group, "Nothing occurs in a vacuum. What you do as leaders sets the stage. People follow your example. What happens below is partly because of your actions here at the top. And in any case, to be practical, that is the part you can most easily change." This time I did not give them this full spiel, but I did ask, "What might you be doing that inadvertently supported this lack of cooperation? For example, in the last six months have any of you criticized another person in this room or another department or division?" Immediately a manger shot back with, "You mean since breakfast this morning don't you?" Another manager chimed in, "You mean since the coffee break!"
As the laughter subsided, I hardly needed to say it—but did anyway. "So here we are setting an example, by criticizing other people and divisions, and then wondering why they don't feel like cooperating."
This was one of those rare moments of insight for the group. At the next meeting they told stories of how they had stopped criticizing, and instead, were working together on visibly cooperative solutions. They also reported that people below had noticed the change, and liked it.