Creating a culture where people collaborate doesn't just make the workplace more engaging. When teams collaborate, companies profit. The challenge for business leaders is figuring out how to create a culture where collaboration is an inherent part of the process.
It turns out that it requires more than just making people sit in open concept office spaces and assuming that inspired collaborations will occur. Regardless of an employee's role or location in the company, everyone has to collaborate sometimes whether they like it or not, says Maury Blackman, CEO of Premise Data, a data and analytics company in San Francisco that crowdsources data to answer real-world questions. Projects are rarely completed in a vacuum by an individual person or team, but when teams operate in silos, or individually fail to meet deadlines and goals, it results in delays, missed milestones and misinformation that can slow the project's progress and degrade its value.
Team members don't have to be best buddies outside of work, but they do need to appreciate each other's skills.
—Alison Pollard-Mansergh, artistic director, Interactive Theater International
A collaborative culture only works when business leaders change the way projects are managed, as well as the way people are held accountable for the work that gets done.
“Absolutely one of the biggest challenges is getting departments inside a company not to act like silos," says Blackman. This is especially difficult when those departments are distributed across the country, or are made up of remote workers who may never meet in person. “Getting those people connected is always challenging."
To break down these silos, Blackman leverages Slack, Google Hangouts and videoconferencing tools to bring his people together whether they are located on different floors or different countries. “With video chats, everyone has to participate," he says.
Once they are all together, he makes sure everyone involved in the project understands not just what they are expected to do, but also how their output effects other elements of the project. He refers to this process as “inter-collaborative goal setting," where as a group they first set broad project goals, then assign individual tasks to each team member that are mapped to the project outcomes. Once the project begins, teams have daily or weekly check-ins so everyone stays up to date on what's been accomplished and who is falling behind. “When they see the relationship between what they are doing and what others are doing, it makes them more accountable," Blackman says. “No one wants to be the squeaky wheel in that process."
Create Safe Spaces
To ensure smooth progress, team leaders also need to create conflict-free environments where everyone feels like a valued part of the collaboration process, says Alison Pollard-Mansergh, artistic director of Interactive Theater International in Brisbane, Australia, an immersive theater company with 50 to 60 actors and a team of administrative personnel. “Team members don't have to be best buddies outside of work, but they do need to appreciate each other's skills," she says.
She starts every project by first getting people excited about what they are trying to accomplish, then talking about the value each individual member brings to the team. “This makes the conflict go away and creates the right atmosphere for collaboration," she says. Then they use a brainstorming strategy where they share their ideas for the project, then comment on what they like about each idea—without shutting any of the ideas down. “This way everyone is invested in the process from the beginning," she says. While not every idea gets chosen, the opportunity to participate in the brainstorming process, and to choose the path as a group, sets the stage for effective collaboration.
It's also important to note that collaboration may be uncomfortable for some people, especially when it requires new ways of working, or concepts that have never been tried. But that's often where the most innovative ideas take root, says Scott Yeates, founder of Mythology Distillery, a distiller of craft spirits in Denver.
Mythology has gained notoriety and several awards for creating spirits through surprising collaborations, including its Chatter Wolf vodka, which is rye vodka infused with spiced plum tea from Teakoe, a Colorado tea company. It's also collaborated with a local botanical garden, restaurants and vineyards to create one-of-a-kind spirits. “Collaboration is the fun part of what we do," Yeates says.
However, it doesn't come easily to everyone on his team. When Yeates started the company four years ago, he recruited a seasoned distiller who had a long history in the industry, but wasn't accustomed to crafting things like juniper-infused gins. “[He] used to roll his eyes at those kinds of ideas," Yeates says. But after seeing the success of a few collaborations, and how local restaurants and bars started to seek out Mythology to come up with signature cocktails and spirits, he has gotten on board. “Now he's the one coming up with ideas for new collaborations," Yeates says.
The lesson? Encourage people to pursue ideas that they are passionate about, and make it okay for them to take risks—even if the ideas don't always pan out. “It's got to be about more than making money," Yeates says. “It's about doing something unique as a team."
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