The ability to lead and manage collaborative work is of increasing importance in many professional fields and already an essential management competency in some settings. Collaboration between colleagues and within multi-skilled teams within the same organisation is just one part of the picture. Often, collaboration involves people both inside an organisation and others who, in earlier times, would have been seen to be outside the organisation. Collaboration with customers, suppliers, formal and informal joint venture partners, funding bodies and other stakeholders is now part of everyday business, public sector and not-for-profit organisational life.
Optimal outcomes from collaborative effort require managers who are not only highly skilled in the technical aspects of their work – the so-called ‘hard’ skills – but who also understand what it takes to create an environment in which collaboration can thrive and worthwhile goals can be achieved. Applying this understanding is a critical ‘soft’ skill when collaboration is desired.
What is Collaboration?
Collaboration is about working with others to achieve something. It is about coordinated effort for the purpose of meeting all parties’ needs to the greatest extent possible. In true collaboration no party emerges as a loser and each participant in the collaborative effort may make compromises in relation to their own needs – for the greater good.
As an example, a government-funded provider of social housing employs staff with social work backgrounds to provide a range of support services to tenants. It also employs property maintenance specialists to ensure that properties are well maintained and the value of the organisation’s assets is sustained. Tenancy support staff tend to have a bias for meeting people’s needs and maintenance staff are generally more focused on creating and implementing an efficient maintenance program. On a daily basis, tenancy and maintenance staff must collaborate to ensure that the inevitable tension between meeting tenants’ expectations and property maintenance targets is carefully managed.
Collaboration is not the same as cooperation though they are related. Cooperation is about providing assistance when it is required. Staff might be asked to cooperate with managers by completing monthly reports by a particular date. On the other hand, collaboration is necessary when managers want staff to feel involved in, and engaged with, assessment of their own performance. The distinction between collaboration and cooperation is important because sometimes you just need people’s cooperation. Asking for cooperation when you actually need a collaborative arrangement can also trigger confusion and misunderstanding.
Managing Collaborative Effort
For successful outcomes from collaborative effort, managers must check their habitual style for attitudes and behaviours which are likely to engender a spirit of collaboration and for traits which could inhibit collaboration. For example, good facilitation skills, respect for diversity and an enquiring mind tend to create conditions in which collaboration can thrive. On the other hand, a judgemental attitude towards people and situations or a ‘command and control’ approach to management often produce infertile ground for collaboration.
By way of example, a project manager who espoused principles of collaboration and promoted its benefits for cross-functional working was actually a source of much frustration for her staff. In stark contrast with the rhetoric of collaboration, she routinely did most of the talking in project meetings and was often dismissive of ideas brought to the table by particular members of the team. A change of project manager enabled the team to become far more productive because team members felt respected, safe to voice creative ideas and confident of management support to make mistakes as long as they learned from them.
Collaborative effort requires managers whose skills go way beyond traditional competencies such as planning, budgeting, organising and controlling. Collaboration requires managers with well-honed ‘soft’ skills. For example they must understand successful negotiating behaviours such as active listening, self disclosure, respectful confrontation and clear communication. They should model these skills and, where necessary, help others develop them.
To demonstrate another example of moving to a collaborative approach, a large government department came to the realisation that ultimate outcomes from its work would be greatly improved if its relationship with the agencies it funded to deliver services could be transformed from ‘funder-funded’ into partnership based relationships. This required a system-wide move from a ‘command and control’ style of managing relations with agencies to a far more collaborative approach. Large-scale cultural change within the department included a radical shift to a far more open and flexible style of working with agencies. Agencies were still accountable to the department but became much more self-determining about their strategic direction and service delivery to clients.
Effective management of collaborative effort involves active support for interpersonal relationship development and an ability to develop a working environment characterised by trust and openness. It also demands awareness of the political dimensions of collaboration – conflicting interests and competing aims. These dimensions are particularly important when, as in the case of the department and funded agencies, collaborative working involves people from multiple organisations.
Barriers to Collaboration
Managers who believe there is value in a collaborative approach to meeting their goals should be wary of the potential barriers and be proactive in either removing them or selecting an alternative approach to collaboration.
Collaborative intent is undermined when managers are unwilling or unable to invest in it. Yet collaboration can be costly in terms of time and resources. Time is needed to build a trusting environment and to develop the working relationships which are critical for successful outcomes. Resources might include professional development to enable the skills of collaboration to be learned. Resource requirements might also extend to factors such as the technology necessary for effective communication between geographically dispersed participants in the collaborative effort.
Optimal outcomes from collaboration are also at risk when, despite the collaborative efforts of those who are directly involved, more senior management interferes or otherwise acts in ways which are inconsistent with a spirit of collaboration. Ensuring optimal outcomes from collaboration can mean paying as much attention to ‘managing up’ as to ‘managing down’.
Are you ready to manage collaborative effort?
The self-assessment activity below will help you to reflect on your own readiness to manage and lead collaborative effort in a particular situation. The exercise works best if you write your answers rather than just think about them. Your responses will help you plan for any professional development necessary to help you better lead and manage collaborative effort.
- Describe the situation in which you are required, or have been asked to, manage collaborative effort. Make sure you cover:
- What you will be managing (the project or task).
- Who will be involved. (The individuals, groups or organisations – be as specific as possible.)
- What each player aims to achieve from their involvement.
- Where those who will be involved in the project/task are located.
- When the work will take place (overall timeframe, specific working times, whether people will be working at different times).
- How you intend to manage the project/task (your intended approach to project management, communication and reporting).
- What authority will you have in your management role? (Note that this question can be tricky to answer if you are involved in a multi-organisation role. It is nevertheless essential to be clear about your position.)
- For what, and to whom are you accountable?
- What decisions will you delegate to team members? And which decisions will remain your responsibility?
- What will collaboration look like in this particular situation? How will you know if people are collaborating effectively?
- Is there a trusting environment for this work or does trust need to be built?
- Has sufficient budget been allocated to allow the time and resources required for collaboration to be effective?
The Limits of Collaboration
Collaboration is not a panacea for all contemporary workplace challenges. For sure, there is a time and place for working together, for generating and exploring ideas, for defining common ground and for achieving shared goals. On the other hand, some tasks are best performed by an individual, perhaps with cooperation from others. And there are times when leaders and manager must use their judgement and make key decisions which may not have universal support. Collaboration can support accountability in organisations but it is never a substitute.
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator, specialising in organisational development and change leadership through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates team planning and development, undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative action learning approach, coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.