If you want to get your people collaborating effectively you shouldn’t look to changing company’s strategy, structure, technology or people or skill levels for the answers.
Making changes in these areas never really moves the needle on improving collaboration, not if you don’t first sort out the bit you can’t see that knits everything else together, which is the norms your people work to.
It’s kind of like a computer operating system – you can’t see it, you’re not really aware of ever using it but without it nothing else works properly. The norms your people work to are the same – they’re unseen, people are generally unaware of how important they are and without them, or with the wrong norms, nothing else works properly.
You can therefore change your business strategy, re-engineer your company structure, bring in the latest tech, recruit highly talented individuals and send your people on skills training, but none of that will make much difference to how well your people collaborate unless you get them working to the right norms first.
Simply put, the norms your people work to are the unwritten rules they follow when interacting with others. Before anyone does anything, for example, they will unconsciously and very quickly run through a series of questions, the answers to which tell them how the situation matches up to these rules and how they should behave depending on the answers they give themselves. Simple questions like:
The thing is, the norms your people work to dictate the questions they ask themselves, how they will answer them and their subsequent behaviours, which in turn determines how well they collaborate.
So, for example, it won’t matter where a person is in the company hierarchy if the working norm is that hierarchy is not important – in fact, if hierarchy is genuinely not an issue for people in your organisation, they won’t ask themselves this question. However, if hierarchy is an issue for them, they may decide to show off, watch their step or even just step back and say nothing, all of which will have an impact on how they collaborate with those around them.
In the same way, people are more likely to be able to collaborate effectively if they experienced a good outcome the last time they were in a similar situation or if they got a positive result by challenging someone’s assumptions. However, if they were met with sarcasm last time or are usually ignored when contributing, they’re less likely to fully engage next time round.
The way to help your people collaborate more effectively is to get them to identify helpful working norms and support them in applying them in different situations until they and associated behaviours are embedded as habit.
We do it with our clients by working with networks of key influencers in the middle of the organisation. Participants attend a workshop, where we discuss helpful and unhelpful working norms, nail down what will work and plan where and how they can use them. Then over the next twelve weeks participants receive group and individual coaching to help them introduce the new norms and new behaviours into their part of the business.
It’s from the middle, disruptive and leads to immediate and sustainable change, improving productivity, reducing costs and increasing revenue – an experienced programmer genuinely contributing for the first time after thirty years in the background; customer complaint escalations wasting hours of team and senior manager time reduced from four a month to zero; pulling a failing client project back from the brink and then winning a further million dollars of business.
Focusing on establishing helpful working norms and getting your people to collaborate more effectively, then, can help you out of a hole, and it might catapult your business forward.
Either way, ask yourself if this is a better approach than what you’re currently doing.