Creating a Highly Engaged Collaboration

The term “collaboration” rarely appeared in management texts in the 1990s. Since then, time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has “ballooned by 50 per cent or more” according to the Harvard Business Review in 2016. However, collaborative overload has led to disengagement.

Emerging organisational ecosystems and accelerating innovation require people within and between organisations of many shapes and cultures to collaborate more to produce higher value for stakeholders. Leaders must develop the ability to build a culture for highly engaged collaboration. These six practical steps will significantly increase the chances of a new collaboration succeeding.

1. Ask, do I need a highly engaged collaboration?

Building a highly engaged collaboration takes significant time, energy and resources. The degree of complexity and interdependence involved determines how tight or loose it needs to be. If high levels of skill are needed, outcomes are uncertain and collaborators need to co-create closely to produce results, a tight or highly engaged collaboration is appropriate. If not, use a regular working group to avoid wasting time and energy.

2. Design the collaboration.

Set the overall goal and let the collaboration autonomously create its own vision and performance objectives. Identify the skills required and encourage those passionate about the brief to join. Ensure collaborators believe they have a valuable contribution to make. Decide how collective efforts will be rewarded. Resource the collaboration and set up straightforward governance. Find out what leadership support is required from you. Focus on influencing senior executives to gain commitment and give legitimacy to the collaboration. Build relationships with potential stakeholders (before you need to call on them) and garner support to backfill collaborators’ day jobs.

3. Facilitate high interpersonal congruence.

Facilitate a powerful shared first experience which allows collaborators to quickly get to know each other and feel comfortable. Allow time for collaborators to share personal information, what they want from the collaboration, strengths they bring and concerns they may have. Do it in a way that creates emotional engagement.

The new Fire Safety Leadership Team at Heathrow Airport UK is tasked with setting the culture of fire safety for the 76,000 people working across the airport. It’s 23 members represent all areas of the airport community, few have fire safety backgrounds. The collaboration, launched at the UK Fire Service College, co-created their vision and strategy whilst sharing the unforgettable experience of fire training.  Stephen Lakin, Head of Fire Safety at Heathrow says commitment from the business gave legitimacy, autonomy and sense of identify which accelerated success of the collaboration.

4. Listen, agree purpose, vision & strategy.

The collaboration launch is the first opportunity for collaborators to do real work together in articulating, refining and agreeing their raison d’être and strategy.  Encouraging collaborators to truly listen to each other is essential. MIT researchers found the more listeners within a team, the better the team performance.

Use a robust process with sharp facilitation to help collaborators move quickly from agreeing a common purpose to co-creating shared vision from stakeholders’ perspective and translating it into a pragmatic strategy, ready for go.

Time is of the essence especially with global collaborations. The Global HSSE Improvement Team of APM Terminals, part of Maersk Group , came together from around the world for the first time to set their vision and strategy. Their purpose is to transform safety culture for the company’s 22,000 employees worldwide. In just a few days (and late nights) they agreed their vision and achieved clear strategic goals with quick wins prioritised. Each collaborator was fully engaged and ready to make immediate impact on return to their region.

Being involved in creating the strategic vision generates higher engagement – by a factor of five according to McKinsey. We believe it is the energy generated from this challengingly intense and creative strategic visioning process that binds the collaboration as they experience their first taste of success in deciding together what they will achieve and how.

5. Agree how to work and make decisions.

The collaboration should agree the roles and responsibilities required to execute its strategy, determine performance objectives, frequency of meetings, agendas and reporting. Deciding on a brand/name will help build identity and pride. Collaborators should agree how to communicate efficiently and which tools to use. WhatsApp keeps things simple, Google Hangouts is great for small group meetings, Slack, BaseCamp or Monday are useful for team working. Between formal meetings, don’t underestimate the power of a coffee chat for building relationships.

Collaborations can make better quality decisions and reduce bias by agreeing the decision-making process and setting decision criteria.  At London Borough of Tower Hamlets council, the collaboration responsible for “Local Presence”, an initiative to transform the customer experience, identified the criteria that would underpin a new model of service delivery to the community. Working through a process of understanding the drivers of customer satisfaction, agreeing an aspirational mission statement and visioning from the customer perspective, they identified a set of seven principles that underpinned their successful new model for service delivery.

6. Agree how to behave and grow as a collaboration.

We know agreeing behavioural norms that everyone can stick to, such as attendance, mobile phones and confidentiality, helps the collaboration work well. But it is the spirit of helpfulness, assumed good intent and the ability to give great feedback to each other which enables collaborations to grow. Consultants from competitors PwC and Deloitte Consulting collaborated in this way on a highly successful programme for the UK Ministry of Defence. Developing high levels of trust and confidence in each other enabled them to work seamlessly in collaboration with their joint client.

Being able to argue and debate constructively without taking offence as part of a creative process, so-called “creative abrasion” helps the collaboration be more innovative. At the University of Cambridge Research Office, Senior Managers leading their culture change programme gained confidence in finding creative solutions. Our study over two and a half years showed an increase of 34 per cent in the Innovation dimension measured.

Finally, successful collaborations regularly review how well they collaborate as well as deliver results. This gives the opportunity for collaborators to say how they feel about the collaboration as well as the work, to capture learning and enable the collaboration to grow.

In conclusion, highly engaged collaborations succeed because collaborators want to be there, have responsibility for their own success and get the support they need. Your job as leader is to create the conditions for success – following these steps will certainly help.

Let me know how you get on!

Susie Kennedy is senior partner of KBA Solutions Limited which she founded in 1993. KBA specialises in change leadership consulting and executive development. She is Programme Director for KBA’s Institute of Leadership and Management Strategic Leadership programme for senior managers, with programmes in the University of Cambridge, Premier Foods and nationally for UK Local Government at Kings College London.



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