Small Business News: Fuel growth and innovation through effective collaboration
Many companies confuse collaboration with teamwork. Teamwork is about subordinating one’s self to the group, putting the team first and working with others to get something done. Collaboration, on the other hand, is about stepping outside of established roles and traditional company structures to focus on results.

In other words: Teamwork is like the fluffy, loving Care Bears®. Collaboration is more like the former duelling thumbs of Siskel and Ebert.

Real collaboration is messy. Knowing that collaboration might rock the boat a little, is it still worth the effort? According to a report published by Google®, the answer is heck yes! The report notes:

  • There’s an 81% positive correlation between collaboration and innovation.
  • 72% of employees who regularly contribute new ideas at work collaborate regularly.

Effective collaboration clearly contributes to the development and sharing of new ideas which spark growth and innovation. But in order to cook up some serious company collaboration, you’ll need to make sure you’re using the right recipe. Collaboration requires a careful mix of three essential ingredients: being able to trust, embracing conflict, and providing an environment that encourages employees to collide and share ideas.

The importance of trust

In a collaborative environment, trust is essential. Author and consultant Larry Prusak has this to say about the role of trust, “There can be collaboration without it, but it won’t be very productive or sustainable in the long run.”

Here are some tips to help you build trust within your company:

  • Promote trustworthy people. According to Prusak, this is the strongest signal you can send employees about the fact that trust is important.
  • Publicize the costs of distrust. Prusak believes that lack of trust, both internally and externally, increases transaction costs. Distrust, in his view, leads to all kinds of watching and reorganizing, increasing overhead.
  • Give people a reason beyond their pay to come to work. In Prusak’s words, “… embodying your strategic vision in a common narrative that everyone can believe in” will motivate your employees. Consider sharing the company’s vision on items that employees interact with on a daily basis. Things like pens, sticky notes or water bottles will be a constant reminder of the company’s direction.

Embracing conflict
Conflict is the root cause of most collaboration failures. Many organizations only deal with the symptoms of conflict, not the root cause. It’s vital to learn to embrace conflict in order to reap the benefits of collaboration. Jeff Weiss and Jonathon Hughes, partners in Vantage Partners, a Boston-based consulting firm, point out that, “The disagreements sparked by differences… actually generate much of the value that can come from collaboration across organizational boundaries.”

Try some of these techniques to embrace conflict in a positive way:

  • Have a common method for resolving conflict. The key according to Weiss and Hughes is to have clear steps for employees to follow, and to have the conflict resolution process integrated into the other essential business processes of the organization. Give employees a humorous and non-threatening reminder of how messy collaboration can be with a customized cleanup brush and dust pan.
  • Provide criteria for making trade-offs. Provide clear guidance for employees on how to approach the inevitable trade-offs that result from competing priorities.
  • Use escalating conflict as an opportunity for coaching. In most organizations, the natural tendency is to kick conflicts up the chain to owners or supervisors. Instead, coach the employee experiencing the conflict directly.

The role of environment
The best thing you can hope to accomplish is to provide regular opportunities for a diverse group of people to collide and share what they’re up to. In your business, consider whether the environment gives your people a chance to collide constructively. Help employees remember “safe” and “helpful” collisions are encouraged with a safety reflective pouch.

Real collaboration is the result of mutual trust, the ability to embrace conflict and provide an environment that encourages employees to collide and share ideas. It’s not necessarily easy, but if you can get there, you’ll have created the conditions that lead to innovation and a true competitive advantage that positions your small business for growth. If you are interested in reading more about effective collaboration, download our Blue Paper™ on the topic!

Google Decisive Decade Report. Rep. Google, Inc., Nov. 2010. Web. 07 Feb. 2013.

Prusak, Larry. “HBR Blog Network.” Weblog post. Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing, 5 July 2011. Web. 07 Feb. 2013.

Weiss, Jeff, and Jonathon Hughes. “Want Collaboration?: Accept—and Actively Manage—Conflict.” Weblog post. Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing, Mar. 2005. Web. 07 Feb. 2013.

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