The business case for collaboration is clear

The pace of societal and technological change makes the ability to collaborate with peers and partners imperative. Organisations and individuals that try and do otherwise will not survive.

90% of the information in the world today has been generated in the last two years. Hoarding data or expecting to gain a competitive advantage through mastery of all the knowledge in a particular field is no longer a realistic strategy, assuming it ever was.  

Want to understand the implications of fintech disruption on your retail bank? Far quicker to tap into your network or partner with a start-up than try and build that knowledge in-house.  

And as the distinction between permanent employees and gig workers blurs, and technology enables global connectivity, collaborating effectively across these boundaries is essential.

The benefits are clear. One study showed that CEOs with a diverse network generated an increase in their firm’s value around 16x higher than their remuneration, and research has found that companies with well-connected Boards deliver better returns.

But increasing collaboration is still a challenge

Despite this, collaboration can be extremely hard to embed. This is particularly true in many professional services and investment banking environments, where there is often a strong individualist culture; deals are done and transactions completed by star rainmakers, individuals who are seen to have the unique relationships and talents to make a difference.

This focus is often reinforced by incentive schemes that target personal contribution rather than team or organisational performance. This can sometimes be unavoidable; it is generally individuals who get promoted, not teams, and most bonuses tend to be very singular in nature.

(Some pitfalls however are very avoidable. Ranking staff based on their relative performance creates a powerful disincentive to help colleagues)

Even when collaboration is explicitly encouraged it can be difficult to foster. Many firms struggle to move talent internally, with managers often seeing little benefit in sacrificing their stars for the greater good.

The challenge with top-down initiatives

Most organisations recognise the benefits of fostering collaboration, and many have structures and process in place to encourage it. Professional services firms in particular are unsurprisingly focused on this. McKinsey has a global P&L model, in part to encourage a firm-first mindset and reduce the incentive to focus on individual clients or accounts.

But driving a top-down focus on collaboration can be difficult, and there are three reasons in particular for this.

By definition, such a model requires strong commitment from senior leadership. There are plenty of organisations where this commitment is less than sincere, and even more companies where the culture makes this difficult. It’s one thing to get the Managing Partner to recognise the benefits of collaboration, another to persuade them to push this onto the wider partnership.

Secondly, if incentives or processes are introduced to encourage collaboration then it is vital that these are transparently and consistently applied. Leaders need to see a clear link between their behavioural change and a future reward if they are to adapt. Again, this is very achievable, but the difficulty should not be underestimated.

And lastly, a top-down approach to driving collaboration often means that the change is being forced onto the organisation with the expectation – or hope – that hearts and minds will follow. Collaboration is as much a mindset as it is a skill, and it requires more than a change of policy or process to change the way your leaders work.

Different ways to increase collaboration

Our work with a range of organisations, particularly in financial and professional services, has shown us that collaboration can be increased significantly when different approaches are used. Here are four things to consider.

Don’t use the C word

“I don’t care what you call it, but you’re not calling it ‘collaboration’”. So said the Managing Partner who tasked us with increasing, well, collaboration across the partner group.

He absolutely recognised the need for greater connectivity across the global leadership group, but he also knew that the word itself triggers a wide range of reactions, many of them negative.

For every partner that sees a benefit in working for the greater good he knew that there were more who saw collaboration as a way of getting them to deprioritise their clients for the benefit of their rivals, a tool for diluting their profit contribution to prop up under-performers, or worse still, a synonym for communism and a philosophical undermining of the principles the partnership was built on.

It’s important to understand the organisational context, and what reaction the word “collaboration” will generate, and that this reaction is often not positive. In the above case we talked about “Leading the Partnership”, a far less emotive phrase that also resonated directly with the firm. And ‘partnership’ also one of the first words you’ll see if you look up “collaboration” in a thesaurus.

Focus on uncontentious topics

If it’s difficult to get leaders to collaborate on commercial opportunities because the competitive tensions and egos are too great, then focusing on topics that are less provocative can be a subtly effective way to increase interconnection.

We worked with an investment bank on a broader leadership development initiative and included a wellness component as part of this; like many senior executives in high-pressure industries, many of the participants had personal wellbeing challenges they were struggling with.

We tackled the topic by creating peer coaching groups, in which participants shared personal wellbeing challenges and how they had dealt with them. Even though the focus was explicitly not work-related, the groups were carefully selected to ensure participants were from business units that would benefit from greater collaboration.

Because the topic of wellbeing was a personal one with no direct impact on the participants’ work performance, any competitive tension or work boundaries were removed, and the leaders opened up more readily to their peers.

This was the start of many long-lasting peer coaching groups that were sustained well after the formal program, and while they all started with a wellness focus, many inevitably evolved into more business-focused networks that in turn led to stronger networks across the firm.

Recognise that collaboration is a mindset not a capability

Most leaders develop by learning new skills, and this development is structured around helping them understand what the new capability is and how they can build it.

Collaboration is very different. We all know the fundamental skills required to collaborate with our peers; talking and making contact, choosing to involve others rather than exclude, encouraging our team members to work together and not in competition. These are all relatively simple skills.

People invariably refuse to collaborate not because they can’t or don’t know how, but rather because they choose not to. To make collaboration work effectively invariably requires a mindset shift, not the learning of a new capability.

This is important to understand, as it has a significant impact on how you teach and encourage it. Instead of focusing on the skills that people need, it is far more important to articulate the business case and personal benefits – the “why”, not the “how”.

Teaching people how to work more closely together is not only likely to be unnecessary, it’s also a waste of time if they don’t see any benefit to doing so.

Enable it but don’t force it

Lastly, just as a stubborn horse won’t drink the water in front of it, so some leaders will refuse all incentives and urging to collaborate.

Our experience suggests there is some nuance here; many leaders are open to collaborating with their peers, but often require some support or facilitation to do so. This might be the creation of the peer coaching groups we mentioned earlier, or it could be KPIs or incentives that attempt to track and reward the behaviour.

Networking events with an enticing hook – an engaging external speaker or hosted at an offbeat venue  – can provide a way to facilitate conversation and connection without seeming too heavy-handed.

You’re unlikely to increase collaboration without some structured effort and support. But it’s also true that it’s not something that you can force. If managers don’t see the benefit or understand what’s in it for them then they’re much less likely to collaborate.

This means that there’s a careful balance to be struck; provide some support and guidance to help, but not so much that it deters people. That tipping point will look different in every organisation and it’s hard to define, but be mindful of it.

Collaboration is hugely beneficial to almost all organisations. But it’s also more complicated than pushing out a top-down message or simply building the individual skills. Understanding this and taking a more nuanced approach is likely to deliver significant benefits to your organisation.

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