Collaboration - human activity or business tool?

Frustrated by the lack of collaboration across his management team, my client called me. He was almost desperate for suggestions that would help him in building a successful cross-functional collaborative team. This team comes together for regular management meetings and is extremely focused on operational results (and highly successful at achieving them) but working together on cross-functional non-operational programmes for the business as a whole… well that’s a whole different ball game. 

I duly invited myself to sit in on one of the team’s meetings where they had identified a hot, non-operational business issue that needed to be resolved. Everyone was engrossed in talking extensively about the problem with lots of suggestions for solutions to the issue at hand. The challenge was that after the meeting, every single team member returned to their day job and did absolutely nothing on the non-operational business issue. Collaboration for this team means talking/examining the problem, but not doing. Guess what? Nothing changes.

What’s going on here?

In his recent HBR article, ‘Stop wasting money on team building’, Carlos Valdez-Dapena talks about the collaboration framework he designed for Mars Inc. One of his conclusions is that Accountability is key; success-minded people need collaborative commitments built into their individual performance objectives.

As he describes the process the Mars teams went through, I’m reminded of one of the organisational psychology tools I regularly use - the Accounting Cycle from Transactional Analysis. The Accounting Cycle reveals just how often we all rush headlong straight into solving issues without giving ourselves the time to really understand what’s actually going on in the first place – what exists and what’s significant.

The accounting cycle addresses this through an experiential 4 step process:

  1. Existence – consider what exists now

  2. Significance – reflect and make meaning from what exists

  3. Solvability - what options emerge to solve the issue

  4. Capacity - what can be easily actioned within the capacity of the individual and the organisation   

Let’s face it – we often rush into step 3, either because our previous experience provides a bias, or we’re trying to impress someone with our speedy actions. We rarely give ourselves time to reflect on what exists – what has been found, what’s really going on around here - to analyse the patterns, themes, motivation and/or root causes that may be at play.  If we take the time to immerse ourselves in what exists, then move on to reflecting on its significance and meaning, then other options will emerge; solutions will present themselves because of our understanding, insights and in some cases, hindsight too.  The learning we gain can be used to generate an effective action plan.

It can be highly challenging for teams to begin working in this way as I found working with a fractured leadership group working in South Korea (it’s rather a stretch to call them a leadership team so we’ll stick with ‘group’).  The group was made up of people from a wide variety of nations, with a specific remit to effect change within a large South Korean NGO. The overall group leader was viewed as a despot, his 6 key team leaders were absorbed in fighting one-another and jockeying for position, and their teams were mimicking their leaders. A real mess; the complete antithesis of collaboration.  We worked with the team using various organisational psychology tools and techniques, including the Accounting Cycle. It became very clear that the leadership group had never taken a step back to examine the reality of what existed in their organisation.  It turned out that the set-up of the NGO, over 30 years’ ago, had been a real political hot potato. The original leader had upset many people with his dictatorial style, had built walls of division and defensiveness in his teams, and this had continued to play forward without examination or change. The significance that the original set-up was actually the root cause of their current issues came as a shock then relief to the group. Once the group had understood what existed and what was significant, solutions started to flow easily and fledgling collaboration started to happen naturally and plans could be formed.

If we allow ‘collaboration’ to become just another business tool, such as software or training, etc., we could be hindering the simple human activity of working together towards shared goals. 

Got a problem with your team not collaborating? Why not facilitate and explore your next project using the 4 steps of the Accounting Cycle: existence, significance, solvability and personal capacity and reap the long-term rewards of stronger and more aligned teams, positive behavioural change and action plans that solve business problems.  Remember, it’s existence and significance that will allow you to effect change!

PS.  By the way, the Korean NGO leadership group is now a leadership team. Things aren’t always easy, but the team members do now have the awareness and desire to keep things collaborative.