Collaboration, across diverse teams and between levels of the hierarchy remain the twin, unconquered peaks for many organisations. This is also true of collaboration internally, within IT functions. Poor collaboration is often revealed to be the fatal flaw in well publicised corporate disasters. Within IT and between IT and the internal functions IT supports, it is a silent, relentless drain on time, cash, productivity, motivation and talent during organisational projects and operational improvements.
The following shows how teams from three very different organisations identified and overcame barriers to collaboration. In one case the teams were specialists within the same large IT function – responsible for different steps in the service delivery process managed in different countries. The other teams were from different functions including: Finance, Legal, Sales, Marketing, HR and IT.
At its simplest: ‘To work with another person or group to achieve something’. Initially the teams thought of collaboration in terms of:
- The tools: The technology and media for accessing and sharing documents and applications, tracking progress, gathering data for decision-making, following processes
- The location: In some cases the teams worked remotely, across sites, countries and continents. In others they were on different floors of the same building
However all agreed that the real heart of collaboration was not just working alongside each other to deliver products and services; there was a creative, proactive element and more in-depth on-going knowledge sharing, learning and debate.
Examples of good collaboration included doing interesting, challenging work, discovering a whole new side to people, making a difference and being recognised for it. Poor collaboration led to deep frustrations and anger over what were seen as avoidable blocks by individuals, teams and management. Where these had been left unchecked, the stronger emotions had dulled to cynicism, small barbs of passive-aggressive behaviour such as not turning up to meetings or going against decisions made, indifference to new initiatives and doing the minimum.
What Stops Collaboration Happening?
Human beings, it seems from looking at any news media on any given day, are socially and psychologically programmed to stick to and to defend their own. Collaboration is also a natural human behaviour but which requires a degree of maturity, awareness of self and others, positive perseverance in the face of others’ reluctance and an environment where it is safe to explore the new and unfamiliar. Goffee & Jones’ ‘Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?’ (2006) and Kotter’s ‘Accelerate Change’ (2014), show there are inbuilt systemic loops that discourage collaboration. It takes a resilient individual or team to question their own and others’ habits, behaviours and thinking.
The danger, when senior management talk about collaboration, is that they refer to best practice principles and thinking which make perfect sense but do not connect with the day-to-day experienced of team members and managers ‘on the ground’. In each of these three examples, senior management encouraged teams to first get some perspective, then address the details that mattered to them.
Proceeding sensitively was important, as there would clearly be areas of rawness around attitudes and perceptions relating to behaviour and performance. The groups included speakers of English as a 1st and 2nd (or 3rd …) language from all continents.
Three Barriers Identified by the Groups + Solutions Explored
Among the many barriers identified, these three were the top priorities because
- a) everyone could take action and benefit immediately
- b) improving these basic communication areas would enable more in-depth collaboration in other areas
Barrier 1 – Emails
The phenomenon of email ‘flaming’ is commonly recognised. When stepping back and analysing the specific language in their emails, the groups were quite shocked. Both managers and team members commented that they had become immune. Comments included: ‘It’s not nice but they are always like this so we try not to let it get to us’. Given that email was the only tool available for communication between some teams on a regular basis, this was critical. The language ranged from the unclear, incomplete and insensitive, to the frankly abusive. Plus, there was limited understanding of the damage that a frustrated ‘cc’ escalation could cause, particularly in cultures with more hierarchical relationships.
The groups focused initially on factors outside their control. These included frustrations around (perceived or real) poor planning and prioritisation passed down the hierarchy, skills gaps, bottlenecks, misaligned processes, managers using unhelpful language themselves. However, when the focus was directed at what practical steps were possible, the group started to feel less embattled, more positive and more willing to take on some responsibility for finding solutions. E.g.: Asking for a meeting, picking up the phone and asking questions.
Having discussed the 7 areas of waste identified in ‘Lean’ process reviews, one team identified ‘Waiting’ for action from those interdependent teams, as an area to work on. By using the ‘neutral’ vocabulary of the ‘Lean’ thinking, they could name their concerns and offer practical suggestions more comfortably.
Barrier 2 – International English
There were some good examples in all the groups of ‘false friends’ where 2nd/3rd language English speakers had done their best to articulate their needs, and the native speakers, perhaps having never experienced working in a second language, took the words used at face value. Some examples included the use of ‘You should …’ which sounds like a command to a British reader but in German translates as ‘May I suggest that you …’ .
Actually discussing these language aspects was extremely helpful in relationship building. All parties were keen to learn how they were perceived and what they could do to help understanding. For native speakers, slowing down – considerably – was key, and not using local expressions. Keeping sentences short. No waffle or ambiguous management jargon. Plain English actually sounds more professional and authentic, but many people, native and non-native speakers believe otherwise.
Groups created their own ‘meetings from hell’ checklist – as a light-hearted way to highlight better practices for face-to-face meetings and video/audio conferencing.
Barrier 3 – Prejudice
Having never met in some cases, and with nothing but a few words in emails and general media images to inform their judgements, the teams had created surprisingly detailed pictures of the intentions, level of intelligence, technical competence, work ethic and values of the other groups.
One team invited the other party to work with them on highlighting and addressing issues together, one at a time. ‘The whole solution in the room’ was a phrase used. Another turned process mapping into a shared, physical and visual activity, with giant post-its, a wall and marker pens. This filled many gaps in understanding and increased appreciation of each other’s knowledge, context and constraints.
In one team, where intercultural training was not an option, managers asked each team to research one of the countries they were working with and present their findings. This included contacting their local native speaker colleagues and asking for their input. The groups found this fun, fascinating and a great ice breaker.
The changes in mood, attitudes and behaviour in each of the teams, was quicker and more significant than expected. Within 3 months, there were multiple examples of small improvements in collaboration and significant improvements in delivery. Actively spending time reviewing successes and small improvements reinforced the shared sense of achievement. In all three cases, a senior manager got involved, either at the start, or when asked to support and the initiatives being taken.
Six months on, internal and customer relationships and delivery have improved in all cases.
Collaboration breeds more collaboration!
Philippa Hale has 25 years of experience in enabling collaboration and communication on international projects and programmes, particularly within and between the IT & Digital functions and colleagues from other business functions. She is Director & Senior Consultant at Open Limits Ltd and an Associate Faculty member at Henley Business School.