Collaborative Working

“None of us is as smart as all of us.”
collaborative working

Defining collaboration…

Collaborative Working is defined as: ‘people working jointly on an activity or project to achieve a common goal (especially where this involves co-operation between a number of teams, departments and/or different organisations to achieve an agreed objective.)’ Also it is a key competency of effective organisations.

The importance of a ‘collaboration strategy’…

Effective co-operation and co-ordination between departments and independent organisations requires robust systems and processes to be in place to make sure that the right things get done at the right time.

The UK’s National Audit Office has commissioned research into Collaborative Working relationships and how they can drive successful programmes. The research identifies (amongst other things) the need for a clear Vision about:

(i) How the collaboration between groups will operate in practise
(ii) What specifically is to be achieved

They suggest covering three key areas as part of agreeing a ‘Shared Vision’:

  1. What are the goals of the project or collaborative effort?
  2. What is important to each organisation (or department) in delivering
    a project?
    E.g. the need for innovation to reduce cost; the need to manage diverse cultures etc.? This means identifying the real factors that impact delivery not just the surface issues that people find ‘comfortable’ to discuss.
  3. What ways of working are needed to address these issues?
    E.g. the need to clarify expectations and ensure role clarity including the critical roles of leadership.

In addition they underline the need to define clear measures (Key Performance Indicators) so that the success, or otherwise, of the collaboration can be identified as the work is carried out. They also highlight the vital importance of having the most senior leaders of the organisation actively promoting collaborative working and being role models for trust and openness within the collaborative relationship.

Actively managing the inevitable conflict…

Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes in a Harvard Business Review Article on Collaboration argue that it has never been more important to get people to work together across internal boundaries. They also think that most Executives underestimate the inevitability of conflict in doing this.

They argue that the disagreements sparked by differences in perspective, competencies, culture, access to information, and strategic focus within a company are:

  • (a) Unavoidable
  • (b) Actually generate much of the value that can come from collaboration.

So instead of trying simply to reduce disagreements, senior executives need to embrace conflict and institutionalise mechanisms for managing it.

They divide these mechanisms into two main areas:

  • Strategies for managing disagreements at the point of conflict,
  • Strategies for managing conflict upon escalation up the management chain

Both processes need to be in place and fully utilised if a collaborative effort is to be a success.

See people not bodies…

Rick Hanson the neuropsychologist and author who writes a fascinating blog page ( has an interesting view on conflict avoidance that can be useful in the setting of a collaboration. He argues that when we encounter someone the mind usually automatically slots the person into a category: man, woman, your friend Tom, etc.

In effect, the mind summarises and simplifies many details into a single thing – a human thing to be sure, but one with an umbrella label that makes it easy to know how to act. For example: “Oh, that’s my boss (or mother-in-law, or boyfriend, or waiter) …and now I know what to do. Good.”

This labelling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials, but this categorising has lots of problems. It fixes attention on surface features of the person’s body, such as age, gender, attractiveness, or role. It leads to objectifying others (e.g. the ‘pretty woman,’ the ‘authority figure’) rather than respecting their humanity. It tricks us into thinking that a person comprised of changing complexities is a static unified entity. It’s easier to feel threatened by, blame or ignore someone you’ve labelled as this or that. So, Hanson suggests that when you talk with someone (maybe someone from another department you are collaborating with), be aware of the many things they are, such as: son, brother, father, uncle, fisherman, donor to charity, reader of detective novels, etc.

Recognise some of the many thoughts, feelings, and reactions swirling around in the mind of the other person. Knowing the complexity of your own mind, try to imagine some of the many bubbling-up contents in their stream of consciousness.

Being aware of your own changes – alert one moment and sleepy another, nervous now and calm later, perhaps you can see changes happening in the other person. This helps to develop a greater understanding of the other person and to encourage a more balanced and calmer way of interacting with them. As Hanson says, “…the more significant the relationship, the more it helps to see beings, not bodies.”

Seven collaborative behaviours…

At the more interpersonal level, the US State Department has published seven key behaviours that they feel drive collaborative working in day-today and face-to-face interactions. They are:

  1. Pausing. Pausing actually slows down the discussion and signals to others that their ideas are worth thinking about. It dignifies their contribution and implicitly encourages future participation.
  2. Paraphrasing. The paraphrase helps members of a team hear and understand each other as they evaluate data and formulate decisions.
  3. Probing. Probing seeks to clarify something that is not yet fully understood and so increase the clarity and precision of a group’s thinking.
  4. Putting forward ideas. It is vital that collaborative groups nurture suggestions, as they are the heart of a meaningful discussion.
  5. Paying attention to self and others. Collaborative work is facilitated when each team member is explicitly conscious of self and others – not only aware of what he or she is saying, but also how it is said and how others are responding to it.
  6. Presuming positive presuppositions. This is the assumption that other members of the team are acting from positive intentions (however much we may disagree with their ideas. It builds trust, promotes healthy disagreement and reduces the likelihood of
  7. Pursuing a balance between advocacy and inquiry. Both inquiry (asking questions) and advocacy (making proposals) are necessary components of collaborative work. Inquiry provides for greater understanding. Advocacy leads to decision-making. A common mistake that teams may make is to bring premature closure to problem identification (inquiry for understanding) and rush into problem resolution (advocacy for a specific remedy or solution.)

So what’s next?

Think about past collaborations you have been involved in. For the ones that went well think about why they went well. For the ones that went badly think about why they went badly. As you reflect on the two experiences, what does that suggest to you about how you can improve your collaborative efforts going forward?

Try reading:
Want Collaboration?: Accept – and Actively Manage – Conflict by Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes, Harvard Business Review Article

Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results by Morten Hansen, Harvard Business School Press (2009)

Review the UK National Audit Office’s suggestions for a Collaborative Working Strategy, published on their website:

If you think that you or your work team could benefit from our help, then take a look at our in-house half-day master class on Self Awareness & Effective Team Work.

Or if you want to help develop a leadership team take a look at our Senior Team Building Programme.

And to end with a quote from the well known entrepreneur Henry Ford:

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself”