How Do You Get Your People to Collaborate More?

Every executive I speak to would like to see more collaboration among their professionals, especially to better serve clients. Collaboration among different service or product lines, and also between support functions, is essential to fuel relationship growth.

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Here’s what doesn’t encourage collaboration:

Telling people to collaborate. Collaboration is a behavior, and people don’t change their deeply-ingrained behaviors just because you tell them to. Does you best friend suddenly start exercising because you tell them they need to get in shape?

Paying people to collaborate. There is little evidence that monetary incentives to “collaborate” and be a team player actually work. The reasons are obvious: We collaborate because we like the other person, have common goals, work in an organization where the cultural norms encourage us to collaborate, and so on–not because we’re paid more money. (Targeted incentives for specific behaviors generally don’t work because you only affect a specific transaction or situation, not the underlying attitude and behavior).

Reorganizing. Yes, the right organization structure can aid collaboration. But it’s not the panacea most people think it will be. Putting two groups under the same boss, or eliminating profit-center differences, can all help. But a reorganization will not suddenly make collaboration go from zero to 60 overnight. Just think about the corporate mergers where, ten years later, there is still an “Us and Them” attitude from each of the two sides of the merger.

In my research, I’ve found that the strategies and actions that encourage collaboration fall into three categories. These are Inculcation, Institutionalization, and Infrastructure:

1. Inculcation refers to a set of activities that allow you to set an example for others and impart collaborative values. To inculcate means “to teach and impress by frequent repetitions or admonitions”. There are key moments in the life of your organization when you have the chance to role model, reinforce, and even directly teach the values and beliefs that underpin collaborative behavior and teamwork.

2. Institutionalization refers to the development of management systems and processes that support collaboration—things like recruiting, measurement and rewards, and yes—despite my admonition above–formal organization structure.

3. Infrastructure comprises collaboration technologies, knowledge management systems, and even office space—the hard-wired elements of a firm that are increasingly helpful in enabling collaboration. The ubiquity of the Internet and the rapid development of collaborative software tools have opened up a whole new world of possibilities for engaging and connecting professionals who may be spread around the globe.

Finally, remember that while collaboration starts within your own organization, it will most definitely include external constituencies. To paraphrase English author John Donne, no firm is an island. The most successful organizations will be those that adopt an open architecture to developing their intellectual capital, building networks, and creating service offerings for clients.

What is your own organization doing to encourage and support collaboration to serve clients? What is working or not working?

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