Three questions to ask when your boss says we need to collaborate better

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated October 2019

“We need to get better at collaboration”.

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard this …..

Our desire for improved collaboration is a bit like our desire to eat 6 bits of fruit a day – lots of us talk about it but very few are actually eating the fruit!

A big part of the problem is everyone usually means something different when they say the word “collaboration”

Let me offer you 3 key questions which give you a simple roadmap to help you clarify what you really mean when you say “we need to improve collaboration”:

Q1: Is the Collaboration you wish to improve INTERNAL or EXTERNAL or both?

Do you require better collaboration within existing teams or do you want to see better collaboration between teams?  If it is internal collaboration then you are really talking about High Performing Teams. If its external collaboration you are really talking about Inter-team Collaborative Working.

Q2: If it is INTERNAL Collaboration you want to improve, is it about Team Leadership or Team Membership or both?

Collaborative Team Leadership is about setting up and leading effective teams whereas collaborative team membership is how to be an effective member in a team . We often forget about the importance of “Collaborative Team Membership” and fixate only on the Leadership aspect. This is a dangerous oversight as the most effective teams embody the principle of collaborative leadership and to some degree “Every member a leader”. For more details on improving both team leadership and team membership check out this article on High Performing Teams.

Q3: If it is EXTERNAL Collaboration you want to improve, is it within the same organizational or not?

If teams are within the same organizational structure then if you go up the hierarchy at some point there you will reach a common authority who can encourage them to work together. The difficulty in this is proportional to the separation between this common authority and the operational team leaders. So for example, if the team leaders all report to the same manager then inter-team collaboration is not such a big problem. But if the first point of commonality is three levels higher than the operational team leaders then this is a different proposition which is almost as challenging as collaboration between two teams in totally different organizations. 

One of the main collaboration problems in the "Same Organization" space is The Sub-Optimization Problem also known as Silo Thinking. If however, you are dealing with collaboration outside the same organization then you also have to deal with the different goals the respective organisations may have which in some areas could be conflicting and competitive. I talk about both two problems and potential solutions in more detail in this article on Collaborative Working.

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Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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