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Collaboration: The key to success for teams, organisations and society as a whole?

John Bull
February 8, 2021
“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who have learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

Charles Darwin

The last 12 months has provided some incredibly inspiring examples of what can be achieved when people reach across boundaries to collaborate on a shared goal.

Within days of the first cases of Coronavirus being discovered, scientists from China, Australia, the US, the UK and Germany were working together to sequence its genome.

F1 teams, high tech manufacturers, Universities and ‘Big Pharma’ have worked together to produce ventilators and vaccines.

We have also seen plenty of reminders of the extent to which ‘tribal behaviour’ between different groups can halt progress.

Recent political events in the US are a stark example of what can happen when energy and power are focused on division rather than unity.

As ‘Homo Sapiens’ we are hard-wired to collaborate. Interestingly, other, less successful branches of the human tree, such as the Neanderthals, are thought to have been largely non-collaborative beings. However, even we Homo Sapiens are only likely to collaborate with those we see as part of our ‘tribe’.

We have seen what positive collaboration can do. We now need to build on such shining examples of positive collaboration to meet the challenges of the next 12 months, and indeed future years.

In our organisations we will need, as a minimum, to:

  1. Capture everyone’s ideas and insights. We need to maximise contributions and improve openness to different perspectives.
  2. Promote and accelerate collective problem-solving across functions, replacing cultures of blame and protectionism.
  3. Create cultures of proactive mutual support to help each other meet both immediate and long-term goals.

This great ambition presents numerous challenges.

For example, we tend to know less about the psychology behind collaboration than we do about individual performance and behaviour – there are big knowledge gaps.

Effort will be needed – great collaborative teamwork across functions, levels of hierarchy and organisations, does not happen without deliberate, sustained effort.

One of the most striking features of organisations (such as NASA, Pixar, and Google) who succeed in creating this kind of collaborative culture, is how much energy they invest in this.

Harvard Professor Amy Edmundson’s concept of ‘Teaming’

Amy describes ‘Teaming’ as teamwork ‘on the fly’. It consists of rapid coordination and communication between people who don’t know each other well, to achieve mutual goals.

The big difference between ‘teaming’ and ‘teams’ is that teams are stable bounded entities. A stable team is like a professional basketball team. People get to know each other and their different strengths. They build trust over time, and they practice performing together.

As powerful as it is to build high performing teams, an increasing amount of our most important work depends on collaboration across boundaries. This type of collaboration is more comparable to a group of strangers forming a spontaneous team of ‘pick up’ basketball.

To build effective collaboration at pace, individuals need to be comfortable bringing their contribution to any group immediately, as well as skilled in seeking out and being open to the ideas of others.

And leaders need to be skilled at creating the conditions for collaboration to emerge.

How do we create the psychology of ‘One Tribe’ across these apparent boundaries?

The key is to try and overcome four human factors that inhibit the quality of collaboration within and between groups:

  1. We are hard wired to be tribal; to divide our world into them and us. When we see someone as belonging to a different tribe to us, we are less open to their views, and less concerned about their goals. This inhibits the exchange of ideas, learning, and coordination.
  2. Confirmation bias. Linked to the above point, we each tend to look for information that confirms our current views, and to filter out potentially useful insights that don’t fit with our preconceived ideas. So even when we do have the benefits of diverse views in a conversation, we often don’t benefit from them.
  3. Low psychological safety. Trust is generally lower when we are in a group with people we don’t know. This can lead us to withhold our ideas and insights.
  4. Unequal contribution; personality and status determining the level of contribution, not the value of someone’s insight. Another block to getting the best out of everyone in group interactions is the tendency for personality and perceived status to influence who contributes the most. The two dimensions of personality that most determine contribution are extroversion and ‘strength of will’. Neither of these have anything to do with who has the best insights.

Could greater collaboration be a game changer in your industry or organisation?

If so, then talk to us.

We're working with organisations across the globe to help them break down silos and foster a powerful collaborative environment.

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