Collaboration is a skill you can improve to benefit your business


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Buzzwords are aplenty. Here's another: collaboration.

It’s a word we use often to describe companies with a view to sharing their expertise, or for people to do the same. We collaborate to accumulate! We come together, share skills and complete projects. Are we doing it well? And are we recognising with enough gravity at boardroom level the skills involved in being a good collaborator? Do you know that collaboration is itself a skill?

Let’s drill down and inspect the efficacy of collaboration. This short article will look at the benefits of, the definition of and the difficulties associated with collaboration, to determine if you’re up for it. Last but not least, we'll explore how we can collaborate better.

What are the benefits of good collaboration?

Solving problems together is better than trying to solve something on its own. This is probably a fact. I didn’t just make this up hoping to convince myself. I have experience of sharing problems, which, inevitably, became either shared problems or dead problems. In a business context, joining with others to complete projects is common sense. Of course, not everyone works well in a team, but it’s hard to argue against projects being richer for the diversity of people putting it together.

This is from The Association for Intelligent Information Management: "Collaboration relies on openness and knowledge sharing but also some level of focus and accountability on the part of the business organisations."Collaborating means learning from each other, sharing purpose and seeing things from different perspectives. By bringing people together to manage a project, for instance, we break silos and connect departments, promote communication, build trust and morale, and increase retention. At an individual level, we encourage new soft skills such as negotiation, and natural leaders come to the fore. (We also notice that the designated project leader may not be the only leader in the group.) Simply put, I would argue that a highly collaborative business is a highly effective business.

But what is collaboration ... really?

And so, a bit of science. When we work together in real time, this is called synchronous collaboration. When we contribute to a shared project, but not necessarily at the same time as one another, this is called asynchronous. It’s important to understand the difference between these two types of collaboration, as they inform the success or otherwise of making it work successfully.

It’s also important to note that true collaboration is human-centred, not software-centred. By this I mean it’s about people, not necessarily the tools we use to help us engage with one another. It takes high levels of human skill to bring about the success of projects led by a collaborative army, with high levels of trust and sharing of knowledge across departments. Not for the fainthearted, right?

The obvious example is how a successful sports team wins because all of the right ingredients are in place. Each has a skill they bring to the team, and it’s a collective effort that achieves the prize. The winning players trust one another and are willing to share their individual knowledge to benefit the team. When one player decides to play by their own rules, the deck of cards begins to weaken.

“To truly collaborate, your organisation must demonstrate the capacity to share resources, turf, and leadership; alter activities - even modify job descriptions if necessary; and, most importantly, work to help ‘the other’ to be better at what they do and, in the process, improve on what you do.” *

Why we find it hard to collaborate

We find it hard to collaborate precisely because we’re human! It’s a hard truth to admit to yourself that you are the spanner in the works simply because you didn’t want to admit you were wrong, or that you let down your guard. It’s human of us to hide what we perceive to be our weaknesses, or what we think people will perceive. This is but one reason we find it hard to collaborate. Here’s a few more:

  • We’re introverted, or shy, or lack basic communication skills.

  • We’re prone to become entangled in our concept of hierarchy (in other words, we think too highly of ourselves, or we think we’re inferior to others).

  • We don’t want to ask for help.

  • We keep things to ourselves to improve our personal position.

  • We’re precious about our ideas and don’t want others to hijack them and pass them off as their own.

  • We may coordinate, or even cooperate, but not necessarily collaborate.

  • We seek individual success, not team success.

  • We don’t share the organisations’ vision, or it isn’t clearly defined.

  • We anticipate meddling from reactive managers, so we don’t bother to participate.

  • We worry that it isn’t in our job description.

  • We don’t want to be accountable if the projects fails.

  • We don’t anticipate acknowledgement or reward.

Gosh, there’s a lot of reasons for collaboration to fail right out of the block! If the above does anything for you, it hopefully resonates as an indicator of how collaboration is indeed a skill. It may even make hard reading if you recognise yourself. I certainly do.

It takes work to be a good collaborator, even if you can harness some innate skills from the outset. You’re never working with a full deck of cards when you enter into a project, even if you’re blessed with many of the tools to make it work. That’s because of the human element, which is always ready to throw you off balance.

“Although some might crave an A to Z procedural checklist that, if followed, would yield a glorious collaboration, such a procedural pattern would fail to account for all the nuances, all the unanticipated twists and turns, and all the personalities that emerge during collaborative work.” *

How do we collaborate better?

Let’s put the human element to one side for a moment and focus on what we can strategically change. We can lay a good foundation for good collaboration to take root and mature, for instance. It starts with having a solid internal communications strategy. Ask yourself, how can the concept of effective collaboration succeed without effective communication at the core of your business?

Do what it takes to bring people together over time. Use tools such as an intranet, a podcast, regular emails, newsletters, video and so on. Explore Yammer, Slack, Office365 and countless other tools, but be consistent and assertive with your decisions. Too many people using too many different tools creates diversion and distraction. While you’re at it, have a manager look over the tools to ensure everyone is trained up and using them.

And so to being human – the hardest bit. Be sure to acknowledge others’ ideas and give credit where it’s due. Avoid micromanagement, and put your ego aside. Neither are helpful. Remember that people need to be trained in how to better communicate and collaborate. Essentially, put the right people in place to manage the task.

Creating an environment that nurtures a sense of well-being, common purpose and happiness should be the cornerstone of your thinking. Logic dictates that improved communication will follow, and then you’ll be able to put highly effective, collaborative teams together that propel your business forward. Lay the seeds now, but know that it won’t happen overnight. Good collaboration isn’t something that occurs when you will it to. It occurs when every ingredient is in place.

* Mashek, D. and Nanfito, M. (2015). People, Tools, and Processes that Build Collaborative Capacity. Available here. [Accessed 2 Mar 2020].