This is the third in a series of blogs focusing on competition vs collaboration. In part 1, 'Competition destroys collaboration' and part 2 'What are the implications of creating internal competition?', we’ve looked at some of the pitfalls of internal competition. Now, it’s time to look at how to create a culture of collaboration within your team.

There isn’t a silver bullet when it comes to culture change, it will take time. Where do you start when leading a change in organisational culture? That depends on the diagnosis of where the problem lies, but as with any strategic change, the best place to start is with the higher-level vision and goals. These need to be clear and relatable for the team to unite behind.

Values and culture are intrinsically linked. Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, wrote in his book ‘Joy Inc’ about the two vital behaviours that define the collaborative culture of his software company:

1. Speak up about time estimate and quality discrepancies

2. Help one another with design struggles

Although this is just one element of the well-known positive culture within Menlo Innovations, it reminds us that we don’t need to over-do it with rules, values and desirable behaviours to encourage collaboration amongst colleagues.

Conditions for collaboration

The success or failure of your efforts to create a culture of collaboration relies on the leadership team creating the right conditions for collaboration and being seen to role model the right behaviours. This might be difficult in large organisations, but it is important to still make the senior leadership team’s behaviour, encouragement and reinforcement of collaboration visible through internal communications channels. The five crucial ‘R’ factors we outlined previously are just as relevant to collaboration as they are competition.

Recruitment – Once you understand the culture you’re trying to create, finding the right person means someone with both the competence and commitment to support and promote the vision and culture of the company as well as positively contributing to the organisation’s performance. Just finding someone capable of performing the list of job requirements isn’t enough. Equally, give the culture room to grow and make sure you find skills and behaviours that complement the existing team – you don’t want a team of clones. If you’ve worked hard to build a culture of collaboration, think carefully about who you’re bringing in and the impact they’ll have on the team.

Risk – You won’t find much collaboration amongst people resistant to change and innovation. Instead of collaborators, you’ll find conspirators trying to deny progress; and maintain the status quo. Communication is key when it comes to promoting a collaborative culture in regard to seizing opportunities, seeking innovations and taking on risk. You need to be clear from the outset with realistic expectations for the team about acceptable risk and the behaviours you’re looking for when it comes to spotting opportunities and weighing up risks. It is important to also consider that not everyone has the same level of competence or mindset when it comes to implementing change. You’ll need to consider different messages and different levels of support to engage different members of the team – converting doubters and encouraging neutrals.

Responsibility – We previously mentioned that you can measure your organisational culture by the lag time between an issue occurring and it being dealt with effectively. For an issue to be dealt with quickly, someone needs to take responsibility and share the outcome with others; whether that’s highlighting their mistake or a problem they’ve spotted or describing the solution. An example of bad practice would be people in a job share or shift changeover that leaves an issue to their colleague to deal with or someone taking the perspective “that’s not my job.” Breaking that silo mentality and creating a culture of collaboration requires consistent reinforcement of behaviours linked to responsibility and accountability. People will only consistently take responsibility if they know that accountability is equally consistent and fair.

Recognition – Define success by focusing on people’s collaborative contribution to the team over competition. Encourage people to share best practice and then recognise those who do. We mentioned previously Adam Grant’s research into givers and takers – recognise the givers in your organisation and support them so they don’t burnout. It’s also important to create a system that is fair in recognising the contributions of everyone and how they’re part of the overall team performance rather than highlighting just the ‘stars’. Furthermore, recognise people in a way that they’re comfortable with and proportionate to the success being celebrated so it doesn’t become meaningless or discourage others – not everyone likes to appear in the internal newsletter or be named in a company-wide email.

Rewards – Rewarding the behaviours you want to see might be difficult as the employee has to also see it as a reward. We aren’t naïve enough to say you shouldn’t have individual targets or bonus schemes, but we believe that they should be balanced with team targets and team-related incentives. For example, if you’re trying to create a mentoring programme then you have to incentivise people to become effective mentors and coaches within the organisation. You have to be careful that your good intentions don’t lead to negative behaviours. For example, if you’re trying to improve the performance of your sales team and you have a team bonus that requires a minimum contribution from everyone then you may potentially encourage bullying, so it’s important to make rewards part of the effort to encourage collaboration and not the only effort.

Where to begin?

We’re taking the potentially odd step of finishing at the beginning. None of this will work without one essential component. Your culture of collaboration will be a by-product of successfully implementing changes surrounding these five factors, but simply saying “we need to collaborate more” misses out ‘how’ this will be achieved. The essential component that brings together all of the five factors is safety.

Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We previously mentioned the argument that competitiveness is innate within all of us and we would also argue that collaboration is too. However, we only build communities, share best practice and look out for one another if our own safety is secured. Whether that’s the safety to ask for help, to allow people to offer us help or feeling secure about our job, it is essential to create that personal safety before you can expect to create a culture of collaboration within your organisation.

Once we’ve created the safety and permission for collaboration to exist then we can focus on creating the why, the what and the when that links to the five factors we’ve discussed.

Collaboration is a powerful tool that can differentiate your organisation from its competitors, but consistently creating it is a challenge that can’t be underestimated.

Thank you for reading this blog series co-authored by Grahame Robb, Joe Mackintosh and Matthew Campbell, of Grahame Robb Associates Ltd.

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