Collaborative processes are essential to create an organization that is on the same page and in sync with one another. A collaborative process and culture in the workplace is defined as the existence of open and free-flowing interchange of information, data, skills, and sometimes even customers and clients when necessary. It is the opposite of a “hoarding” culture, where employees feel that every man or woman is out for themselves. In a collaborative culture, there is no hesitancy to share opinions, constructive criticism, or new ideas. Help is given generously. There is little concern about who will get credit for wins or get blamed for mistakes because everyone shares both victories and setbacks.
As would be expected, having a collaborative culture offers businesses of every size and industry a host of advantages. When there is open communication and free-flowing ideas, team members can solve problems faster, think more creatively, innovate more easily, and help each other not only reach goals but blow them out of the water.
Employees are happier and less stressed in collaborative environments as well. A survey done by Wework found that over 50% of happy employees collaborate with at least 5 people every workday.
In the modern “age of information”, we have seen a large increase in both the complexity and scope of many business projects. At the same time, consumers are looking for faster and more personalized service. The need for collaboration is greater than ever.
Collaboration between large teams of experts in varying fields is needed to tackle big complex projects, while collaboration across sales, service and product development departments is needed to address heightened customer demands. Unfortunately, collaboration usually doesn’t come naturally.
According to research done by Harvard Business Review, collaboration tends to decrease in groups larger than 20 members. Additionally, the very things that are needed for a highly productive and collaborative team such as diversity, high levels of education and virtual communication are the same things that often get in the way of effective collaboration.
Research shows, however, that there are processes leaders can put into place to have greater success with collaboration and thereby, more success in problem-solving, higher retention rates, more happiness amongst employees and a better bottom line. Here are the top seven collaborative processes every leader should follow.
A mentorship program provides new employees with guidance and input from more experienced workers. This not only helps fresh hires to learn the ins and outs of the job they’ve been hired for, but it can help them assimilate into the work culture, gain confidence quickly and have more job satisfaction. Mentoring benefits the mentors just as much. Mentors will grow in confidence, solidify their skill set and have a greater sense of purpose as they build deep relationships with their mentees.
Mentorship is a must-have collaborative process because it helps team members get used to asking for and giving advice, a necessary collaborative skill that requires practice. Moreover, it helps employees to build relationships with one another that go deeper than the surface level, which is necessary for collaboration to occur.
There are two kinds of mentorship programs that a business can implement, and both are important for collaboration.
Formal Mentorship Programs – Fostering Collaborative Processes
A formal mentorship program is structured, organized and intentional. There will generally be procedures in place for enrollment and there will be a system for matching mentees with mentors. There will usually be a longer time frame within which the mentoring occurs (at least a few months).
Formal mentorship programs are great for building deeper relationships amongst employees. Another benefit of formal mentorship programs is that diversity and cross-departmental collaboration can more easily be baked into the program, resulting in more opportunities for innovation and free-flowing communication.
Informal Mentorship Programs
Informal mentorship programs have no set goals or systems in place and usually occur for a short period of time. For example, one employee might meet with a mentor two or three times while working on a special project. This type of “flash mentoring” is good for collaboration as well because it can quickly widen an employee’s circle of influence.
In order to encourage informal mentorship, leaders can make suggestions of people that an employee could go to for advice on a specific project. At Nokia, for example, new hires are given a list of people that their supervisor believes they should meet. It is then the new hire’s responsibility to set up meetings with all of the people on their list.
2. Building Teams Strategically – Leads to Collaborative Processes
When organizing teams for big projects in particular, leaders should think beyond organizing by department, location or seniority. In this global economy, workers can easily collaborate across countries and time zones and there are much fewer barriers to team building.
When building a team, cross functional collaboration (collaboration between two or more departments) should definitely be worked in whenever possible. Cross functional teams are generally great at problem solving and innovation and are often used for product development. For example, cross functional teams were used to create products such as Nissan’s Maxima, Ultima and Quest and Microsoft’s first version of Windows NT.
In addition to integrating more than one department into a team, it is important to look at skill sets, including soft skills. For example, it’s probably a good idea to have a team that includes some people who are very detail oriented and some people who are more “big picture” thinkers. Some members that are goal-oriented and some that are more relational. This will encourage team members to collaborate and cover for each other’s weaknesses.
When building a team, a good place to start is by surveying employees about their strengths and weaknesses, or asking them to take a personality test. With this data, leaders can then put together a powerful team where members are able to bring out the best in each other.
When it comes to sharing ideas, the research shows again and again that diversity is incredibly important. To build a team strategically therefore, leaders should make sure there is not only diversity in departments and skill sets, but also in gender, race, ethnicity, age, experience and tenure. This helps to uncover any “blind spots” in problem solving.
Finally, according to Harvard Business Review, studies show that including employees with established relationships (20-40%) in a newly curated team increases collaboration. This is something practiced by Nokia as well, which will often move entire small teams together instead of shuffling around individuals. The reason established relationships enhance collaboration is because there is already trust between those team members and trust is a necessary foundation for collaboration.
3. Flexible and Purposeful Collaborative Leadership Style
There are many different kinds of leadership, but one dichotomy in leadership styles that has been studied recently is the task-oriented vs. relationship-oriented style of leadership.
A task-oriented (or task-driven) leader will mainly be concerned about the goals and tasks needed to be done to reach their company goals. Conversely, a relationship-driven leader will focus more on the feelings, motivation and general well-being of team members.
Research shows that the best leadership style to foster collaboration is a combination of both the task-oriented and relationship-oriented styles. Specifically, the leader should start off in a more task-oriented style but then switch to a more relationship-oriented style once the goals have been nailed down.
Similarly, the research suggests that there should be a careful balance between clear, cut-and-dry guidelines on one hand and then flexibility and room for creativity on the other hand. For maximum collaboration, the roles, responsibilities, goals and tasks for individual employees should be cut-and-dry and clearly communicated, while the path to accomplish those specific tasks/goals should be left open.
This will send a message to team members that creativity is needed to accomplish their individual goals and they will be more likely to seek feedback and advice.
4. Include Team Members In Hiring and Onboarding Processes
The more team members that you can include in your hiring and onboarding processes, the more collaboration there will be. When employees help out with interviews and the decision-making process, that goes into hiring someone, they will have a sense of responsibility for the person who ends up being hired, even if they are not the ones making the final decision. This translates to tenured employees being quick to offer guidance to the new employee and to invest and believe in them, which will then encourage the new hire to feel more confident going to others for help and advice.
Similarly, including employees in the onboarding process is essential for collaboration, especially if your team is primarily or completely virtual. Our company likes to have a virtual meet and greet type video call whenever there is a new hire. Video is the best way to bond for virtual teams and our employees have found it easier to reach out to one another for advice and guidance after they have spoken “face-to-face” on an informal video call.
5. Offer Collaboration Process Training and Support
Some crucial skills are needed for collaboration such as appreciating others, being able to engage in purposeful conversations, productively and creatively resolving conflicts, and program management. Some of your employees may be strong in these skills but others may not be. These skills all require some practice.
As far as appreciating others and engaging in purposeful conversations, a strong leader should first model the behavior and then offer support to team members. For example, a leader can model appreciation by regularly praising wins and hard work in front of the group and also privately. Similarly, a leader can model purposeful conversations by consistently seeking the perspectives of teammates or seeking outside input and then relaying this information to the team.
Leaders can support purposeful conversations within their team by encouraging team members to seek out other perspectives, and perhaps suggesting who they should talk to. For example, instead of simply telling an employee to fix up an article, you might say, “Here’s what I think, but Sally is great at editing, you should ask her for advice on this as well.”
For conflict resolution and program management, more formal training might be needed. If there is consistent collaboration, particularly in a diverse team, sooner or later, there will be conflict. Conflict isn’t bad either, it often leads to more meaningful collaboration when handled well. As American inventor Edwin Land once said: “Politeness is the poison of collaboration.” Leaders should implement a conflict resolution training program before problems arise.
When it comes to program management, leaders can support team members by having a centralized project management software that automates and organizes tasks for them so that they can focus on reaching their goals.
6. Job Rotation
Job rotation is a system that mandates an interchange between jobs and workstations. Job rotation can remain within a department, but it works best if the rotations span across different departments. SONY is one example of a company that has successfully implemented a system of rotating jobs to help its employees (particularly the engineers) stay innovative, engaged, and satisfied with their job.
Job rotation has a number of benefits for collaboration and productivity in general. First of all, job rotation increases empathy. Once workers have a chance to see what challenges their co-workers are up against firsthand, they become more empathetic and this fosters collaboration.
Secondly, as employees learn new jobs and acquire new skill sets, their confidence will increase which is good for morale, collaboration, and general job satisfaction. Thirdly, moving to different departments regularly pushes employees to make new friends and seek input quickly. And lastly, understanding more of the ins and outs of their co-workers’ jobs helps team members to collaborate more easily and productively because they have a better frame of reference for discussions.
7. Build a Community
In order to encourage collaboration, it’s important to establish a sense of community at your workplace, even if workers are remote. In a workplace, many people will refrain from taking risks for fear of being “unprofessional” while others will keep their constructive criticism to themselves because they don’t want to “rock the boat”. Some employees struggle to even ask questions because they don’t want to look incompetent.
A community, however, is a safe space to take risks, ask questions, get out of your comfort zone and share constructive criticism or unpopular opinions. A community is where collaboration happens.
Celebrating wins as a team is a great way to foster both community and collaboration. When one employee or supervisor has a great day, lift them up and then celebrate the win as a team. This helps workers to value the success of others and motivates them to go after a big win of their own “for the team”.
Celebrations need not be lavish and they don’t need to be in person, although in-person events can be particularly special. Celebrations can be as simple as taking a half-day off work or as lavish as going to a big event together. Meeting up with co-workers outside the office in a relaxed setting is great for building deep friendships and bonds which has a number of benefits, one of which is collaboration.
Encouraging team members to share their skills with one another is another way to build community. This can be done through mentoring as mentioned above but it can also be a lot more informal. Employees could even share skills that have nothing to do with work. Perhaps you have an employee who is great at cooking or who makes their own furniture. Learning a new skill together is a great way to bond, increase empathy and get some creative juices flowing.
The benefits of collaboration are significant, but business owners should be aware that collaboration is not something that “just happens”. Processes must be put in place. There must be strategy and intention in order to cultivate a collaborative culture. It will likely be an investment of time and resources in the beginning, as well as a labor of love to direct team members to each other.
However, once the processes are established and the culture is there, the impact will be enormous. Morale, retention, job satisfaction, attractiveness to new talent, innovation, productiveness and efficiency all improve in a collaborative culture. This will of course have a huge impact on the bottom line as well.
Reuben Yonatan is the Founder and CEO at GetVoIP, a global comparison resource for business technology buyers.