5 Keys to a Culture of Collaboration

August 20, 2020 Ken Blanchard

It’s no secret that collaboration creates high performing teams and organizations. And with a diverse, remote, globalized workforce, it’s absolutely essential. Organizations that embrace a collaborative culture benefit internally from increased sales, improved innovation, and better business processes. The external benefits can include new products and services and a smoother running business that delivers higher client satisfaction and increased revenues and profitability. Additional, less tangible benefits include knowledge sharing and competence building among employees and contractors.

Many people think of collaboration as being the same as coordination, cooperation, or teamwork. However, these words are not interchangeable. Collaboration involves bringing resources from various areas together to create something better or to solve a complex problem. These resources may come from different departments, teams, and locations—and may include people from other organizations.

This kind of collaboration can save lives. For example, during the wildfires of 2003 in San Diego, the efforts of police, firefighters, and first responders were fragmented due to unaligned communication systems. In 2003, as firefighters flocked to the county from all over the west, some had only 800-megahertz radios rather than the traditional VHF radios—meaning they couldn’t talk to each other. By 2007, when the Cedar Fire hit, the agencies had learned to collaborate: all the police, fire, and emergency responder agencies were equipped with VHF radios.

Collaboration can happen even between organizations that traditionally might be thought of as competitors. For example, in 2011 the Nature Conservancy and Dow Chemical Company partnered to construct a wetland for water recycling that was beneficial for both nature and Dow’s bottom line.

Attitude can color our willingness and ability to be collaborative. For this reason it’s important to examine your intentions, beliefs, and actions to develop collaborative competence. In the book Collaboration Begins With You: Be a Silo Buster, my coauthors, Jane Ripley and Eunice Parisi-Carew, and I used an acronym, UNITE, to identify 5 keys for developing a culture of collaboration in your organization.

  1. Utilize differences. Many people think if a work group allows differing viewpoints it increases the chance of disagreement, which would be a bad thing. We believe focused conflict in collaborative groups is good—as long as discussions stay fixed on the issue at hand and don’t get personal. In fact, diverse ideas often lead to groundbreaking positive change. The ability to utilize differences for the greater good can determine the success or failure of your project—and possibly your company.
  2. Nurture safety and trust. Be a role model for the behavior you want to see in others. To build trust with your team, be transparent when making decisions. Make it clear that you view mistakes not as failures but as learning opportunities that can be shared and discussed. People flourish when they know what a good job looks like and have clear expectations and freedom to experiment. It can lead to smoother processes, improved communication, and innovative thinking.
  3. Involve others when creating a clear purpose, values and goals. It is essential to allow input from others when writing a purpose statement (to galvanize action), operating values (to guide behaviors), and strategic goals (to focus energy). If these decisions are made only by executives and imposed on the group in a top-down implementation, people won’t be wholly supportive. When people get to contribute their thoughts, they will offer much greater support and buy-in because each person has a stake in the outcome. Involving others in these important decisions builds their commitment to the cause—whether it is at the corporate, department, or team level.
  4. Talk openly. As a collaborative leader, having an open-door policy will encourage spontaneous interaction between your people and you. Welcome their feedback, questions, and ideas. Listen when they speak and focus on listening to understand. Share your own knowledge openly and encourage people to speak freely without fear of judgment. Be accessible, authentic, and dependable. This kind of clear, honest communication will build the respectful and trusting environment necessary for a truly collaborative culture.
  5. Empower yourself and others. Effective leaders learn early in their careers that they can’t manage whole projects singlehandedly. They need an empowered team that takes initiative, accepts responsibility, and works collaboratively to achieve goals. When I think of a leader trying to go it alone, I imagine a crew team with only one oar in the water. That boat won’t get very far with only one person rowing—but when the whole group is working together, the boat seems to glide over the water without effort. Although a collaborative leader must still set work direction, resolve conflicts, and remove obstacles, an empowered team makes for a truly collaborative culture.

Establishing a culture of collaboration is the way to organizational effectiveness—but it isn’t an overnight fix. It requires commitment from the top as well as buy-in throughout the company. Promote a collaborative culture in your organization by encouraging your direct reports to collaborate not only with their team members, but also with other people and departments. You will see them begin to share knowledge, generate new ideas, reach higher levels of performance—and your entire organization will  realize the meaning of the phrase “None of us is as smart as all of us”!

Want to learn more about a people-centered approach to leadership? Download a free 60-page summary of Leading at a Higher Level. It’s available for free on The Ken Blanchard Companies’ website and it contains the best thinking from the founding associates and consulting partners of our company. Use this link to access the summary.

About the Author

Ken Blanchard

Dr. Ken Blanchard is the cofounder and Chief Spiritual Officer of Blanchard®, an international management training and consulting firm. Ken is the coauthor of The One Minute Manager, as well as 65 other books with combined sales totaling more than 21 million copies.

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