Culture in crisis 1. Collaboration’s missing ingredient

Jul 14th

The structures of tasks, specialisation and accountability in the pre-Covid business went hand in hand with assumptions about location and physical footprint of the business. As these assumptions are forced to change, a new way of operating is emerging. Due to the demands of the Covid-19 crisis, new ways of working have sprung up with many more people working from home and in small, collaborative teams.

So, how to seize this new collaboration and make it as effective virtually as it is in person?

Collaboration: working together on a common goal has 4 key dimensions

Three of the four key dimensions can be managed in these new conditions, but the fourth is often ignored. Where to focus action:

Cooperation – answer the question, ‘What are we here for?’ Be clear about shared purpose and ways of working

Contribution – answer the question, ‘What is my part in this?’ Identify and coordinate tasks and skills across and within groups.

Connection – answer the question, ‘Who am I working with?’ Create formal and informal socialisation with employees and stakeholders.

And the vital link that is often overlooked:

Challenge – answer the question, ‘What is the best way to meet our goal?’ Model and support productive conflict and avoid groupthink.

Strengthening offline collaboration

Build healthy Challenge by noting the nature of the challenge itself. Most groups and teams are less than brilliant at handling contention and working confidently with productive challenge. In a virtual world of conference calls and video calls it is even harder.

In a face to face meeting, non-verbal communication and the atmosphere of supportiveness can encourage people to raise an objection or ask a naïve but vital question. It’s harder on a video call where you are less sure about how your intervention will land. Even if the issue is not controversial, we may hesitate to prolong the call for others.

This puts an important responsibility on the meeting leader to go around the meeting checking for issues, objections and questions (in a way that sounds like they mean it), before going around again to check agreement. It also means everyone needs to be explicitly aware of any cues of discomfort or dissent and either call those out in a constructive way or let the team leader know that there is something to follow up.

Enhance Cooperation by finding consensus on the why and the how. Team leaders need to spend more time making sure that the shared purpose is understood and ways of working, especially ways of decision-making, are understood and agreed. An explicit team charter may help. At the very least, make sure actions and responsibilities are confirmed at the end of each meeting.

Clarify Contribution by engaging the team in planning and sharing the bigger picture of how its work fits with other teams. When individuals work mainly on their own, clarity on the parts they play – their role, their strengths – is more important than ever. And it should be understood and agreed across the team. What is assumed or implicit can always be misunderstood, especially in a remote virtual working environment.

Strengthen Connection by setting up a frequent and regular rhythm of meetings. Consider a daily short meeting to orientate and align everyone’s work and quickly identify any issues. Support connection with clear rules on availability, such as when the team leader can take a call Short, informal social time can help to keep human connections alive – a team chat over a cup of tea or a drink, a team quiz, keeping them time-limited and within normal working hours.

With the novelty of virtual working and the uncertain and worrying external environment, most people will demonstrate more positive collaborative behaviours.

The risk of ignoring the grit of challenge, however, could mean wasted effort and poor results.

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