All comments posted on this blog do not reflect the opinions of any organization that I am affiliated with. These are my personal perspectives only.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Three "Best Practices" that Kill Collaboration

"Why must we keep convincing people about the importance of collaboration!? This is not a new topic or a radical concept. We all know it's good. If man, by nature is a social creature, then why haven't we cracked the nut on collaboration".

This was a statement made by a participant at a meeting I recently attended. It was one of those comments that just made the room stop for a minute and think. It was a legitimate question, that was rooted in frustration over years of work on the topic of collaboration.

I've written a set of blogs (Desire, Opportunity, Capability, Connectivity) that talk to the ingredients required for collaboration. If you're really interested in creating a collaborative work environment in a traditional company or in a Enterprise 2.0 organization, I suggest you read those 4 articles.

In this blog, I thought I'd focus on 3 controversial reasons that actually kill collaboration. These 3 obstacles, are often considered "best practices". You may even read these as proud statements on the next resume you review but, it could turn out to be the reason your organization can't get to the next level of collaboration.

1. Well defined, measurable set of objectives directly linked to compensation, recognition & rewards tailored for each employee.

There are several proponents of having well defined measurable objectives and tying them directly to compensation. Management by Objectives (MBO) & Jack Welch are just a couple of names you'd hear praising the benefits. It seems logical that if you do a good job, and it's linked to your objectives then you should be compensated for this.

The difficulty lies in the individual nature. The first concern is around the competitive aspects of this kind of model. If your knowledge or expertise could really assist someone else but helping them had no relation to your objectives, would you help them? What if we took it one step further. What if your helping of someone else actually hurt your ability to meet your objectives? Perhaps it would take you away from completing your objectives or actually go counter to your objectives? What if the more important thing for the company was helping that other person?

Often a cascading objectives model (one in which, you get your objectives from your boss, and she gets them from her boss, etc..), leads to solio'd thinking. Opportunities that arise that cut across silo's (and requiring collaboration) are simply never seen. It's not that people want to be malicious, they simply don't see the opportunity.

Is it possible to structure objectives, that allow for collaboration that still are well defined, measurable and linked to compensation? The answer depends in what "well defined" means. In theory, an objective about collaborating could resolve this. It's worked for other organizations. If you go this route though, keep in mind the implications it has on organizational structure as well. Proceed with caution, you're changing institutional models that may be as old as the organization itself.

2. A strong track record of success & being an expert.

William Torbert and associates have done some very interesting research looking at effective leadership styles. One of his findings is that most leaders are good leaders. In fact they would be considered "experts." How could this be a bad thing? Well, think of when you last asked for help. I bet it was likely because you needed help! Why would you ask for help if you knew how to do something? The answer of course is that there could be a better way...

Collaboration fails when the participants, aren't really listening. This tends to happen when we become experts in a field (or believe we are experts in a field). It becomes even worse when others also identify you as the expert in an area seeking advice and recommendations. What happens is we are so confident in our ability, that we simply get things done. We understand the most complex issues and when someone, with basic understanding offers a suggestion that could go against years and years of thinking in a field, we tend to dismiss it. If you're a parent, and consider yourself to be a good parent, how likely will you listen to someone (who doesn't even have a child) give you some parenting advice???

Acknowledging this is the first step to becoming more open & receptive. Torbet talks about "Alchemists" who can "transform" information and concepts into radically new things in a collaborative model. Keep in mind, this doesn't mean you need to collaborate on everything and that expertise isn't a good thing. It's knowing how to be receptive to collaboration.

3. Focus on getting things done and taking quick action.

Today more than ever, we are praised for our ability to get things done. Business moves at the speed of thought. Competitive pressures drive us into action. We must take first mover advantage.

I won't argue that speed & agility aren't critical for today's successful business. The problem occurs when we find out afterwards that we were running the wrong race. Short-term solutions that provide immediate payback cause us to ignore the longer term implications. In addition, we mis-interpret action for speed. We see the guy who is busy responding to e-mails, & making decisions as more productive then the guy who is chatting with his team over coffee.

Reality is that the race starts way before we even get to the start line. It's in all the preparation we do prior to. Collaboration, in these early stages sets the stage for swift action. As Covey would say... Seek first to understand the problem/opportunity and then to be understood.


For each of these factors it's all about balance. Those things that created success may at a certain point, be the same things that stop us from getting to the next level of collaboration.

What do you think? Have you experienced any of these? Do you have other examples?


Irene Nathan said...

Yes, these three “best practices” do seem to hinder collaboration in many organizations, though it need not be so. I can relate to the competitive outcomes of tying rewards purely to individual performance objectives. A few years ago I worked for a large software company with different lines of business, each with a specifically tailored and generous compensation and rewards plan. However, cross-organizational collaboration was neither rewarded nor penalized. At that time, I was leading the strategic sales group to generate new business in client-server platforms. A large client of mine had agreed to consider a potentially larger enterprise deal that required bringing in my company’s mainframe platform team. In a joint meeting, the client asked for more time to complete their due diligence before concluding an enterprise license agreement. The mainframe group’s SVP--although she had previously agreed to our joint strategy with this client--then opportunistically proposed to the client to conclude her piece of the business first. This was because the client wanted more time to address my client-server part, which would have affected the SVP’s business quarter and, therefore, her large bonus. Though her behaviour was a concern, I wanted to maintain the collaboration with the mainframe group and, fortunately, the client agreed to complete the business within our fiscal year. Thereafter, I spent much time collaborating with the mainframe group to ensure that were on the same page to achieve our common and individual objectives for the greater good of our client and our organization.

Irene Nathan said...

Collaboration can be annihilated by another ‘best practice’ -- strong and decisive leadership. This prompts people to say what they think their bosses want to hear, to clam up and/or engage in self-serving behaviours. An effective culture of collaboration, learning and action requires the right behaviours from key leaders at all levels. They need to walk the talk on sharing honest and relevant information; building open relationships; working together with others regardless of rank; listening with openness to new ideas or feedback; mutual learning with others; building trust by being straightforward, sharing decision-making authority and keeping commitments; sharing credit for the work of the group; encouraging an open and supportive environment for collaboration; and recognizing and rewarding openness, honesty and collaborative efforts -- all have to occur within a context of a focus on common purpose and goals. It’s important that ‘collaboration’ not become an end in itself, but a means for enabling the organization’s goals and success. Otherwise ‘collaboration’ can easily become just another management fad that contributes to an organizational personality disorder.

Rex Lee said...

Thanks Irene you've made some great points and provided some good insight.