Intentional Collaboration: The Mechanics of Learning to Learn Together

Originally posted by Chris Jones, a TalentCulture contributing writer. He is an IT Strategy & Change Management consultant, with a passion for driving new levels of engagement and learning in the modern organization. His research areas include the dynamics of organization culture, and more recently, the importance and implications of critical thinking. Check out his blog, Driving Innovation in a Complex World, for more.

In our increasingly complex world, the compelling need for strong leadership and resilience to “clear the path” for change is evident.  It’s a core message from Chip and Dan Heath’s “Switch” that resonates with pretty much everyone in the corporate world.  Clarity of vision is paramount. Conviction to achieve it, just as critical for any dynamic workplace or social community.

These ideas are not new.

It’s just getting harder and harder to survive without a strong, hardened competitive edge, an edge sharpened by effective collaboration.

The ability of an organization to solve its hardest problems lies deep in its inner workings.  Can team members from multiple backgrounds and disciplines work together to develop new insights and solutions?  Do they have the tools and skills, or can they acquire them?

Surely there’s an application for this?

It sounds straightforward in principle, but culture often works against us, fueled by the western industrial model forged on hierarchy and silo-thinking.  In these environments, specialization and experts rule the roost, and collaboration will typically struggle.  I conducted deep dives on culture barriers in 2010 and I’m increasingly convinced cultures can, over time, be intentionally redirected.  But it takes focus and rigor, and a long-term investment of energy.  More recently I looked at some insights from Peter Senge that seem to resonate even more now than they did 20 years ago, when he first wrote about team-based learning.

I’m starting to talk more about intentional collaboration to refer to the strategic, rigorous approach to group interaction and problem solving.  This helps distinguish it from the more casual references and idle claims.  Everything today is “collaborative.”  So how do we drive meaning into the words, and more rigor into the desired behaviors?

Here are some ideas for a more serious approach to collaboration:

  • Give collaboration a broad, compelling mandate
  • Find ways to open communication channels to get people not just talking together, but thinking together
  • Empower contributors with direction, training, and feedback
  • People are more comfortable if they know who they’re talking to; make sure they’re introduced to each other or have a published profile, to help people connect and break the ice
  • Encourage interplay of ideas across all specialties and levels, to foster diversity of thinking
  • Invest in tools that make it easy to find, share, tag and reflect on people and their ideas, key steps toward becoming a social enterprise
  • Respect everyone’s thought space by not cluttering channels with noise or trivia
  • Visibly acknowledge and reward the hard work of critical thinking and cross functional solutions; openly celebrate wins
  • Embrace and leverage the latest drivers in organizational change management, including “Switch” (linked above) and Drive by Daniel Pink, which contains additional clarity on change motivators.
  • Refuse to turn back

Organizations, leaders, and teams need to learn by doing. Trial and error need time to happen.  Soon there will be some wins.  Emerging from that, fueled by small successes, I believe organizations will find themselves increasingly motivated to take on harder problems, building a repeatable capacity for learning.

What are the other challenges that lie ahead?

Organizational silos do not dissolve by decree.  Silos and silo thinking are fueled by the organization’s culture, and can only be dismantled by a concerted, coordinated effort – from both the top and the bottom – to redefine the way things work in the middle.

The hard work of introducing collaboration also requires people to interact in profoundly new ways. It requires new kinds of relationships, placing new kinds of demands on the organization, with focus on trust, respect, open dialog, empathy, and even basic listening.  All too often, the approaches themselves fall on deaf ears.

No doubt, there’s much work ahead, but it is work worth pursuing.

Can you see a path to collaboration in your own organization? Share what you’ve seen working.  I would love to bring focus to some bright spots in this important space.

Image Credit: Pixabay

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