Skip Collaboration for Collaboration’s Sake

BY: HANNAH FELDBERG-DUBIN

As a facilitator, it’s my business to think about how people can work together to achieve the best results. I design and facilitate a variety of different sessions, from multi-day organizational strategy sessions to full-day inter-departmental off-sites to hour-long team meetings. And in all of them, my goal is to encourage collaboration.

However—I’ll make like Chevy and cut to the chase—collaboration isn’t always the best tool for every problem. My 20 years of experience have taught me that there is a specific time and place for collaboration. It shouldn’t be your default setting. It should be thoughtfully strategic.

To Collaborate or Not to Collaborate? Talk About a Question.

In his book, Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, Michael Mankins shares research that urges us to see collaboration as a double edged sword. Yes, work is getting more complex and we need to be more collaborative, but the dark side of collaboration brings challenges—more collaboration means more time. Mankins’ research shows that middle managers spend about 11 hours a week in meetings, half of which they either didn’t need to attend or didn’t need to be there for the entire time.

Booking a meeting once was challenging—it required phone calls, logistical coordination and date negotiation. Now, it doesn’t cost us anything to make a meeting invite, nor do we even need to tell someone about a meeting—we can just send them a calendar invite and expect them to attend.

The choice to approach organizational challenges with collaboration needs to be in service of something, ideally something important where you’ve got clear alignment on the desired outcomes.

So, don’t bring a group of people together because [fill in the blank].

  • Our competitors are doing it.
  • I don’t want to leave anyone out.
  • We were told not to work in silos.
  • I want to try something that sounds cool.
  • And so on…

Choosing collaboration as your default setting frequently runs the risk of unfinished projects and tired teams. Ever heard the expression, “More meetings equals more work?” Ugh, it’s exhausting to think about. But when collaboration is used strategically—correctly, even—people feel bought-in and excited to do more together. So how do you know when collaboration is the right approach to the work and when it’s not?

Making Collaboration Work—A Real World Example

I recently was hired by an organization to help them create greater team alignment. We decided to tackle how employees were talking about their team culture. It all sounded great, but it all sounded different. And that signaled a breakdown—a perfect opportunity to use collaboration to gain alignment, clarity and increased team morale.

The first step was for senior staff to come together and nail down the themes of their organizational culture that mattered most (what we called, Culture Pillars). The next step was for that same group to determine which pillars the company was excelling in and which required more attention. (How we did it: consensus workshops, wordsmithing and active listening to get us there). Once we had those pillars for improvement identified, the final step was to bring in the rest of the organization in to create action plans.

We weren’t asking the rest of the company to build on or edit the Culture Pillars that the senior team had come up with. Rather, we wanted them to come together in small teams to build solutions to the pillars that needed improvement. Within a short time, and with virtually no budget, the teams collaborated to quickly build and test solutions—new or improved company processes, structures, messaging and staffing plans.

In this example, the way we went about collaboration was intentional.

  • We wanted to include the right people at the right time with the right level of involvement. The key here was to be respectful of everyone’s time and be strategic about who we leveraged and when.
  • We wanted staff involvement to be in the practical application and testing of the prototype versus during idea generation and prototype creation. It was up to the senior team to identify the Culture Pillars, since they were a big part in the growing and leading of the company. Then, the larger staff worked on ways to implement the Culture Pillars that made sense in their daily work.
  • Feedback and edits will be welcome a few months from now, once we all gain practical experience with our first prototype. Our goal was to create a prototype, something we could take from the session and experiment with.

This staged approach to collaboration honored people’s time, effort levels and workloads. It was inclusive at the right time and sought feedback, but only after we all gained some experience.

Considerations for Collaboration

A few tips to help guide you in making collaboration work more strategic:

Pick the right project.

Ask yourself: Where does collaboration add the most value? Where can it make the greatest impact? Where can people get excited? Do we have time to do this well?

Pick the right part of the project.

What part of your project makes sense for collaborative approaches? All of it? Parts of it?

Decide who’s in the room and make clear what stake they’ll have in the collaborative work.

Figure out who should be in the room and what role, authority and decision making power they have. Do you weigh some people’s opinions more than others? If yes, at what point do you want their involvement?

Think about bringing people into a collaborative process at the right time.

Don’t think of it as excluding people. You can let your colleagues know that you want to honor their time and want their involvement when it makes sense.

Budget the time.

Collaboration takes longer, and you can’t rush it. Plan out the work, and then add on 20% more time (has anyone ever been mad about you delivering something early?)

Push for clarity.

Make sure your sessions and meetings have agendas with clear objectives listed. If you’re not clear on what’s supposed to happen or what your role will be, seek out that information. Don’t accept a meeting, session, or collaborative project until you know what the goal is and your role in all of it.

Be honest about your work habit tendencies.

Do you tend to involve yourself in collaborative processes because you enjoy them? But what about your other work?

Focus.

We live in a world where we have access to information all the time—we’re drinking data out of a fire hose! So, what projects make sense for you and your team to focus on?

So, the Answer…?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe my best work comes from projects when I get to collaborate with other people. Frankly, I produce better results when I have someone else to bounce ideas off of and who pushes me to stretch my knowledge base and skill set. But still, in my world, I try to give my full attention to the group I’m working with. And that means I simply don’t have the time to be collaborating or designing collaborative experiences all the time. I’m still perfecting the right balance on the right project and bringing in the right people at the right time, but I know that collaboration isn’t my default setting anymore, and that feels like the right approach.

 

 

ABOUT HANNAH FELDBERG-DUBIN

This week’s post come to us from Lead Trainer Hannah Feldberg-Dubin, who we often refer to as the “swiss army knife of facilitation”—no matter what the situation, she’s got the perfect activity ready to help move a group forward. With over 15 years of experience working as a facilitator, trainer and consultant, Hannah’s people-centered approach to problem solving has helped hundreds of teams and organizations meet their goals and better serve their stakeholders. She’s worked with a variety of organizations in the social enterprise, nonprofits and education space, including IBM, Me to We, Universal McCann, The Design Gym and General Assembly.

Hannah has a Masters of Art in Leisure Studies form the University of Waterloo and a Bachelors Degree in Recreation Management from Acadia University. In her research, she focused on studying optimal learning environments, program evaluation, transfer of training, positive youth development and productive organizations.

 

 

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