Buried by too many emails? Struggling to get work done amid meetings, conferences calls and a deluge of instant messages?
You might be suffering from "over-collaboration."
If so, we hear you. But in our experience, we have found that effective collaboration, driven from the boardroom to the shop floor, can result in higher profits, revenue growth and levels of innovation. Really.
"Collaboration," as practiced in many organizations, is flawed. When team morale is emphasized above business results, work grinds to a halt. But don't blame collaboration itself. Based on our experiences working in lean entrepreneurial settings and large global corporations, as well as those of others', we have found that collaboration can be transformative. So what's the key to getting it right? It's actually three steps that build upon one another. Our recommendation is to build a collaboration strategy around people, technology and culture. We’ve outlined the steps that will help you get your organization working faster, smarter and more efficiently than ever before. Here they are:
- Develop a collaborative mindset: Focus on motivating a core set of "influencer" individuals within your company who will leverage a collaborative mindset, which organically spreads and encourages entire teams to follow the same behavior.
- Deploy the best technology possible: Ensure your teams have the right technology to increase the speed, accessibility and ease in which they collaborate together.
- Align your organization to foster a collaborative culture. This requires executive support for constructive and constant collaborative interactions, a unified set of company goals and consistent expectations for teams to collaborate across functions.
Curious for more? We will break it down.
Step One: Develop a Collaborative Mindset
At first a group of individuals becomes the change agents; these are the collaborators across the organization who exemplify the collaboration mindset behavior. They have learned what a collaborative mindset is and how to leverage it in an organization for success. Individuals then organically influence others, and teams of people become motivated to collaborate. As with any change initiative, there is always a bell curve of adoption. It’s unrealistic to assume all will begin behaving differently; however, “success breeds success,” and when something is working, others will follow.
When beginning this journey of fostering a collaborative mindset, both logic and leadership can be used to shift behavior. For a logical or fact-based discussion on collaboration, we recommend the book "Get Big Things Done" by Erica Dhawan and Saj-nicole Joni. In great depth, they studied how connections among individuals and teams have driven greater profitability and innovation across the globe and in a variety of companies. They cite examples from Colgate to pumpkin farmers. What you do as a company doesn’t matter. How comfortable your teams are with reaching out to one another and working out difficult problems together does. The authors explain how Colgate used an open-source problem-solving tool to help it improve a brand of toothpaste. Stymied by its own efforts to improve an internal product, Colgate turned to InnoCentive, a tool which connected it to an unemployed physicist named Ed Melcarek. His contributions helped the Colgate team to improve its approach to its toothpaste challenge and future projects. It’s best summed up in a quote:
“While connectional intelligence is a human trait, its power is amplified when shared among groups,” the authors write.
As employees see how it’s possible to ask questions, make more money, and increase their own success in the organization, their behaviors shift. But collaboration takes leadership and reinforcement across teams to make it stick. Company leaders must mirror what they want their teams to do. Examples include allowing a team see how to build bridges to other parts of the organization or partners outside of an organization. Another example is using the technology a company invests in for collaboration rather than sticking to the old ways. You might say, “Please add that to our file-sharing tool” instead of simply reading an email like you used to. Leaders can also make collaboration and relationship building a measured KPI .
Step Two: Deploy the Best Technology Possible
Adopting a collaborative mindset is one thing. But it means little without powerful technology. Today’s technology can help employees share their ideas for increasing revenue and innovation more quickly and efficiently. There are many options; we break them into three categories:
- Asset sharing and communication. Asset sharing is for any type of document or file you need to collaborate with. For asset sharing, you can go with pure file-sharing services like Box, DropBox or Google Docs. There are also options like SAP Jam Collaboration, which captures files, blogs, wiki pages and conversation threads all together. We like these tools because they make access easy from anywhere, and ensure you always have the latest thinking. Best of all, updating assets on these sites doesn’t take much effort. So even those who like three clicks or fewer are apt to use these tools to keep their work fresh.
- Communications-based tools are for facilitating, tracking, and managing dialogues between teams. The second category supports instant messaging such as Lync or Slack, or video chat such as WebEx or Zoom. Theresa has seen teams use Slack to anticipate each other’s needs better because they can collaborate anywhere and anytime with groups. In her own company, she uses Zoom to keep participants engaged and shift gears in conversations based on physical cues.
- Lastly, there is the physical environment where your employees work. Believe it or not, your work environment is a technology too. Many Silicon Valley startups don’t have cubicles or offices. If you visit the SAP Palo Alto AppHaus, you’ll find a completely movable workspace and walls that can be written on. The idea behind this thinking is that there are no limits to your thinking and solutions, both on the projects you work on and the environment in which you sit to solve problems. The startup mentality of open floors instead of cubicles is also a physical cue to prioritize sharing and discussion over privacy and quiet. There is a leadership-leveling concept that says no matter what your position in the company is, you are welcome to challenge and change how the company wins. In a traditional setting, any VP and above would have a closed office. In the modern setting a closed office signals “closed to you approaching me about ideas."
Lars Dalgaard modeled the open floor plan and shared leader seating at SuccessFactors when Natasha first joined, and we’ve seen many other companies in the Valley follow suit for the same reasons. The point here is that progressive companies are leveraging what’s available, including video chat, telepresence and virtual whiteboarding to promote a culture in which risk-taking, idea sharing and innovation are prioritized.
With systems comes a responsibility to be compliant. As of March 2017, there is a new global standard for building and maintaining collaborative business relationships called ISO 44001. The ISO standard is based on eight stages that follow a natural sequence from opening up a collaborative business relationship to successfully producing results with the partnership, and ultimately continuing or ending it upon completion of purpose. Reading up on a published standard is always recommended. This is also important because of the trend toward scientific backing of collaborative practices.
As mentioned earlier, there is more than profitability to gain from collaboration; there are also greater levels of innovation.
Step Three: Align Your Organization to Foster a Collaborative Culture
The core tenet to establishing any collaborative business relationship is first alignment of philosophy and values, followed by alignment of objectives. Goals get executed when everyone from the top down knows what they are shooting for and what part they play. Some of this is human psychology and some is common sense. In "Common Sense Talent Management," Steve Hunt examines six different types of needs businesses have to execute on their plans. The first he highlights is alignment, which enables companies to “rapidly and systematically communicate business goals to employees throughout the organization so they see the connection between high-level strategies and how they spend their time at work.” If there are holes in the common goals of your organization and uncertainty as to how they will achieve their aims, collaboration will be stymied. You must find ways to close these gaps.
Establish common objectives. This will be a combination of targets set by the board and executive leadership. Targets and leadership goals tend to be more direct like revenue and growth. To articulate specific customer-satisfaction goals, we recommend going out and validating with customers. Old-fashioned informational interviews are one tool you can use. Social platforms like LinkedIn and its groups are another. How you engage with your customers is less relevant than ensuring the objectives are validated by your recipients directly. With instant messaging, telepresence and other web-based technologies, this can be done quickly and for a modest investment.
It’s equally important to apply this "active listening and validation" technique to internal or partner/seller audiences you may be creating programs for. Work to best understand the beneficiary of your programs by talking to them directly and soliciting their feedback early in product or program development.
In this step you also are codifying all of the steps together and tying collaboration to compensation or publicly stated expectations. When you know what the objectives are, who needs to be involved and the types of work to be done to complete it, success is far more likely to occur. It’s imperative to set your goals, publish them, and lay out a cadence in which things should be done. Here are specific suggestions we’ve found that help companies the most at this phase:
- Goal mapping. Spend time mapping the main goals you want to achieve as individual companies and together in partnerships. Look at shared customer markets and revisit what it is they want. Document clearly what success looks like and categorize the work into actions for the right teams. Make sure individuals can see how their tasks map to the top-level goals so they have a sense of how they connect to the projected success.
- Cadence. Timing is important to keep your team accountable and to allow room to iterate. It’s human nature to let things go if there is no deadline. Agreeing on when something must be completed will increase its likelihood of success. When setting timelines, shy away from working in a silo for six months on one project and then doing a great big reveal. Gone are the waterfall development days when we spend weeks or months in a cave trying to map a perfect plan. It’s been long proven that we waste too much time without delivering enough value when we take that approach. Encourage teams to run in two, four- or six-week sprints to ideate, develop and launch programs or products. Allow for time to listen and observe how a milestone launch went. This might be through data analysis, customer communities or live interviews. Then allow time for the team to make adjustments based on what they learned.
- Documentation. Whether you call this discipline or rigor, the idea of creating a plan together and documenting it has well-backed research to support its value. Sometimes this is a legally binding contract, perhaps with a partner or with an employee. Sometimes it might just be the annual goal and performance process. Writing it down may be to keep those parties clear on what the contractual obligation is, or it may be to ensure year-over-year success and personal growth in a performance review. If you’re coming together with a partner, we particularly encourage you to write down your own plans individually to solidify your objectives and then work on a combined plan. This way you will be crystal clear where the joint plans overlap. Documentation also has the benefit of visually seeing how a plan stacks up over time and whether there is true alignment. We’ve seen cases where a team missed from executing on a particular objective or people were hired before a product or campaign was ready for launch. Both of which could have been avoided if a cross-functional team was involved in planning and mapping the goals and timeline.
The evolution of business operations that are open and collaborative to meet modern market needs is both exciting and complex.
Bridging the gap toward success begins with accepting that this is our new reality. Gone are the days of silos and closed offices.
Modern organizations must build a foundation of customer and partner centricity, organizational alignment around collaboration principles, and a culture that embraces “the collaboration mindset.”
Driving the collaborative culture within your organization, allocating the resources, budget and time for education are all critical steps to long-term success.
But the rewards are worth it. Implementing successful collaborative business partnerships that follow the principles above will help you increase your innovation, better serve your customers and increase revenue and profit.
Who wouldn’t want that?
Opinions expressed in this article are those of Natasha Loeffler-Little from her personal experience and capacity and not those of SAP.
Theresa Caragol is founder and principal consultant of Achieve Unite, a strategic advisory and performance partnering firm that provides business acceleration services to global enterprises including partner and channel development, go-to-market planning, M&A channel integration and executive learning forums. She has more than 20 years’ experience in building and managing multi-million dollar indirect channel teams and strategic alliance business and programs from inception to sales success. Prior to founding TCC-Achieve Unite, Theresa held senior executive roles at Extreme Networks, Ciena and Nortel.
Natasha Loeffler-Little is a native cloud product and go-to-market expert. With over 15 years in delivering and creating cloud products in Silicon Valley, she has brought her knowledge together into a modern approach to business model optimization and build scalable channel programs. Natasha is currently a business development expert for SAP having both global and regional experience in leading programs and strategy for partners.
 Dhawan, Erica and Joni, Nicole-saj, Connectional Intelligence (New York: Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2015) pg. 54
 Hunt, Steven, Commonsense Talent Management (San Francisco: Wiley, 2014) pg. 32