Why and how you should foster a culture of collaboration


Collaboration is at risk of becoming yet another hollow buzz word. There, I said it.

There seems to be a modern trend sweeping the workforce at the moment. It’s one that sees the adoption of important core principles like collaboration or social learning but believing that all it takes to implement them is an investment in a ‘tool’.

We heard about the 70:20:10 rule and will be setting up an intranet so our staff can be more social and learn from one another
Our team are more mobile now and we want them to be able to collaborate despite being on the road. We have set up video conferencing technologies so they can still work together on projects

On the surface, these are great ideas; an intranet can indeed boost engagement, and video-calling does help bring a human element to a remote workforce. But more often than not, this is sadly where the scope of the implementation ends. We have an opportunity to improve how our teams work together, instead of just saying, “Here are some tools that make collaboration happen, they can use them now.”

Which is why, months later, you may find yourself in a meeting room, wondering why on earth the company ever got these crazy rotating cameras at the end of the table, and why they seem to be watching you in a disapproving manner as you lean over your mobile phone (that is on loudspeaker, of course) whilst quickly racking up points in a game of “Conference Call Bingo” before returning to your desk to find an inbox littered with notifications from your intranet reminding you to complete your profile.

It's scary how quickly this "Conference Call Bingo" card can be filled out.

It's scary how quickly this "Conference Call Bingo" card can be filled out.

Sooner or later, the business will notice that their vision of a more connected and social workforce just isn’t happening the way they hoped. Naturally, they will check in on their employees and an all too common series of events will unfold:

  1. Staff are asked why they aren’t using these new tools that the business invested in. The staff respond with: “I don’t have the time”, “We don’t know how to use it”, “It’s too complicated” or, “It never works properly”.

  2. Management is disappointed that their team aren’t using the tools, so they speak with other managers on the best way to fix this. Fingers will be pointed at L&D, goats will be ‘scaped’ and eventually, after enough vitriol has spewed forth, someone will inadvertently suggest that the best way to fix this problem is to make the tools mandatory. Because if people have to use it, they’ll learn to love it, right? When has that ever backfired?

  3. Employees grow resentful of these tools and claim that “The business really doesn’t understand how we work or what we need”. Workers become more isolated, and the intranet gets half-hearted posts from users who simply want to tick boxes to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

The above scenario is something that I have witnessed personally; twice over, in fact. And what I have grown to understand from these events is that it wasn’t the intentions of the business that were wrong, nor the tools, and it certainly wasn’t the training or the staff.

No, it was nothing so immediately obvious. It was because no one realised that for these tools to be successful, you need to have first invested in creating a culture that formally understands collaboration. You need to not only believe in its benefits but actively demonstrate and encourage it.

The truth is, your organisation probably isn’t one that does the above. I’m sorry to put it so bluntly, but there is a good chance that what you view as collaboration within your workplace is just traditional teamwork.

It is an incredibly common misconception that we all make, but there is a subtle but substantial difference between the two:


On teamwork:

When a group functions as a team, they are working as individuals. Everyone has an identified task which contributes to the outcome. A good way to understand it is to think of a soccer team; you have defenders, goalkeepers, strikers etc. Each is a unique role, but they work together to achieve the same goal. A successful team depends on having a strong leader to guide them. If you have a clear outcome as well then it doesn’t even matter if the team members dislike one another – the strong leader controls the work. Control is key with teamwork.


On collaboration:

Within a collaboration, the group not only works together but they think together. The end product comes from the efforts of the group, which means collaborators are equal partners and there is no defined leader. Instead, there is an element of flexibility around who, if anyone, takes the lead and when. Knowledge of one’s role is shared openly, as to collaborate there must be trust and transparency amongst the group. Opinions are respected and everyone negotiates toward the final product.

Don’t believe for a second that I think teamwork is the lesser brother of collaboration. Teamwork is an incredibly valuable asset for so many challenges in life, and in some circumstances, the boundaries and focus of a team are great at achieving a specific outcome. But it is when expected outcomes are not reached that you begin to see the pitfalls of a team come out: “Only some of us contributed” or “We just didn’t work well as a team” or “I said we shouldn’t have done it that way.”

So what is stopping your company from embracing the latter?

Quite simply, it is that the traditional team structure is just so ingrained in our ‘work’ psyche that collaboration can feel scary and uncomfortable. It may also have something to do with the fact that many businesses just don’t trust their employees with the sort of information that would let them make good decisions. (After all, isn’t a manager’s role to assign work to staff AFTER the decisions have been made?)

And let’s not forget that too many businesses tend to assign responsibilities to the higher-ups that really could benefit from the collaboration of all their staff, but that’s “not how it is done around here.”

It’s a prehistoric way of doing business, to be sure. There is too much fear around giving staff the type of support, and freedom they need to truly be collaborative – even when it has been proven time and time again that a formalised culture of collaboration leads to this exhaustive list of benefits;

  • Increased productivity

  • Varied and diverse innovations

  • Increased problem solving

  • More shared knowledge

  • Improved communication

  • Greater access to SMEs

  • More agile decision making

  • Better relationships and trust

  • Better decisions being made

  • Reduced operation costs

  • Greater work/life balance

  • Reduced communication cost.

Sound too good to be true? Just ask Cisco – those were their findings following an internal review as to the benefits of collaboration in their business. Or for a more creative example at the other end of the spectrum, ask Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, on why he fought so hard to create and maintain a workplace that nurtures collaboration.

I am hoping that by this point you’ve been reflecting on your own experiences within your company. Regardless of your title within it, I would like for you to look over the list below and answer each one honestly.

☐ You don’t fully understand what people do in other departments, or how it benefits you
☐ You only have a personal relationship with people immediately in your team
☐ You only work together with other divisions at conferences or events
☐ You are told to do a task, but no one can explain why; “It’s the way we do things around here”
☐ Decisions that affect you, are made for you without involvement
☐ Communication between different teams, or with management is difficult
☐ There are too many channels of communication
☐ You have completed tasks that fall under the remit of other departments
☐ Opportunities to share opinions face to face are limited, and rarely lead to action
☐ You don’t feel comfortable sharing your true opinion, even when encouraged
☐ You don’t feel like the business trusts you with information valuable to your role
☐ You don’t feel listened to, even when suggesting improvements
☐ Commission structures or awards are given to individuals for singular achievements

If any of the above points ring true, then you should have all the motivation you need to change ‘the way we do things around here’.

The process to change a culture can seem daunting, and I know too many businesses that have defeated themselves before they’ve even begun because they just don’t know how to get started. With that in mind, here are some ideas you should explore with others in your company.

1. We move at the speed of trust

You want to provide people with opportunities to build relationships and networks that lead to trust. But don’t think that means stepping up the social gatherings outside of work; it needs to be a consistent part of their daily roles and responsibilities. The act of achieving results and facing regular challenges together builds a bond more effectively than small talk over a glass of bubbly.

Relationships that are developed and nurtured over time lead to trust, and without the trust and confidence in your colleagues and managers, it can be hard speak out or discuss your ideas – elements that are essential to good collaboration.

2. Create leaders of collaboration

Collaboration happens informally within any workforce, but to maximise its potential, you need the leaders and managers to champion the processes and encourage its use. Often a great way to get the skillsets and inspiration your leaders need to host collaboration sessions is through external coaching.

3. Reward and recognise collaboration

It may be a group effort, but it is still human nature to all think about our individual performance. One of the most significant shifts you can make is to reward the act, as well as the outcome of collaboration. Make sure to include collaboration and team goals in individual performance reviews.

4. Break the hierarchy of work

Create opportunities for managers to work directly with their teams on projects; not just assigning the task and checking in, but actually making the decision to remove hierarchy from the situation and work as peers. Like my first point, this is about building trust and a bond of understanding, but most of all it increases respect for the individual outside of their position.

5. Involve the team in hiring and onboarding

Once the realm of the management or HR team, many Fortune 500 companies are beginning to see the value of including their employees in the hiring and onboarding process. This works two ways; it grows confidence and a sense of value within the staff (as you are inviting them to have a say in their workplace) while also allowing the interviewee to understand the culture and their part in it.

Seems like we have come a long way since setting up our intranet and video calling tools, doesn’t it? Human behaviour is far more complex and crucial to your business’ success than the tool you use, which is why your greatest investment will always be in fostering the right environment that lets them innovate, socialise and support one another like we do outside the confines of an office.

James Kerr