Four Collaboration Mistakes You Can Stop Making Today

Cincinnati Reds v Miami MarlinsThere’s something undeniably magical about collaboration and the energy unleashed by a group of people working on something together. It’s a little bit like the energy you feel when in a packed stadium when your favorite band plays — everyone knows the lyrics, everyone knows the songs and there’s just that buzz. It’s amazing.

When we try to create this collaboration buzz in our organizations, we often focus on building the stadium (i.e. we buy a piece of collaboration technology) and hope that the buzz somehow follows. We’re so focused on the stadium, we forget to consider what the band was doing that was so right that got people aligned around it. Worse yet, we forget the fans. The result? Empty collaboration stadiums.

On our mission to fill these collaboration stadiums, some common mistakes plague many organizations. Here are four major collaboration missteps you may be making (and some ideas on how to get back on track).

Mistake #1: You Delegate Collaboration
This is probably the most harmful mistake out there. You see this happen particularly when collaboration is defined as some kind of dated concept of knowledge management, like updating a wiki or something similar. Often collaboration is punted to the lowest-ranking member of the team who is told “Go collaborate for me,” or “Go update this.” The other kind of collaboration by delegation is the ghost collaborator. Most common among senior team members who ask a junior team member to “collaborate” for them (sometimes even using their login).

The workaround? Make sure you’re leading from the middle.

Collaboration works best when the people at the top are viewed as collaborators themselves. But by “the top” I don’t mean the CEO, I really mean the middle — the people who are really in the midst of where the work gets done. It could be the most connected salesperson or the most efficient supply chain manager. When you see those people collaborating, that’s when your collaboration technology starts to gain credibility.

Another work around? Be a “Servant Leader”. Instead of leadership being about the application of pressure onto people, the servant leader is about removing blockers. And this is one of the things that’s great about Bloomberg: hierarchically it’s a very flat organization and the notion of the servant leader is very prevalent here. As a manager, my job is to help my people succeed by working with them. And to me, that is a direct affront to the dated notion of “delegating collaboration”.

Mistake #2: You’ve Assigned Collaboration to a Person or Department
By definition collaboration is not a solitary task. You don’t have to speak Latin to understand that “co-labor” is about more than just one person. But in so many organizations you find that this responsibility falls on one person or department. You might have a Community Manager or a Knowledge Manager who is somehow supposed to make the collaboration happen between disparate teams.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s definitely a role for people who have skills facilitating collaboration, but I think there’s a real shortfall when you make it somebody’s sole job because it allows mistake #1 to happen (delegating collaboration). People will say “Oh. I don’t have to collaborate. We hired so and so to do that.”

The work around? Build collaboration goals into all levels of the organization – especially in formal and public reviews. Simply asking “who did you work with to get this wonderful thing done?” in a staff meeting sends a powerful signal to everyone present. Make collaboration an expectation, not an exception.

Mistake #3: You Think Collaboration Can Self-Organize
This is the notion I mentioned at the start of the post about building a stadium and hoping the fans come. Unfortunately collaboration doesn’t have any magical self-organizing properties. Too often there is some serious money spent on a deployment of collaboration software followed by a very brief training period. The organization says “Okay, you took the online self-paced learning on how to collaborate.” And then six months later wonder why you haven’t been collaborating in the tool.

When you expect your teams to organize themselves without having thought about what makes a great collaborative culture and really demonstrating that, you have destined your teams to failure.

Successful organizations do three things in regards to collaboration: They teach people how to collaborate; they make collaboration part of people’s jobs; and they publicly recognize good examples of collaboration.

Mistake #4: You View Collaboration as a Weakness
Long gone are the days where a leader sits alone in the corner office issuing commands to the underlings who are doing the actual work. The decline of the channel-centric, hierarchical view of organizations has seen the ascendance of strong networks of connected people. Whereas leveraging networks may have in the past seemed more like a social activity that was somehow weak or for entertainment value, that’s no longer the case. That part of the movie is over. We’re now in the part of the movie where networks are powerful and the heroes are the leaders who understand how collaboration is not a weakness, it’s a business imperative.

A work around? Make sure everyone understands why collaboration matters (for your company).

Collaboration is one of these words that has, in corporate land, become one of these over-determined expressions that carries a lot of weight (and by weight, I mean baggage.) I come to the table thinking collaboration means one thing, you come to the table thinking it means another thing, heaven help us if you’ve come from ten years of experience at some other company! So having some established ground rules and shared perceptions about collaboration is key, especially if you’re going to link collaboration to job performance. When your people understand the power of collaboration they will no longer see it as a weakness.

Ethan McCarty (@ethanmcc) is the Global Head of Employee and Brand Communications for Bloomberg LP. Ethan is responsible for growing and managing a team of Employee Communications professionals who activate, inform and enable Bloomberg’s 15,000+ employees worldwide through engaging messages, interactive experiences both online and off. Catch him speaking at Enterprise Collaboration Tech Fest in Melbourne on 28 Feb – 2 March 2016.

Check out my session and come hang with me in Australia :-).