Like death and taxes, one of the inevitable realities of organizational life is the periodic "team challenge." For such a project, the team is assigned to accomplish something beyond what they currently do or have done before. For a top management group, it might be the requirement to reduce overall expenses or headcount by 20%; for a sales or business development team, the goal might be to increase revenues by 10% in the next quarter; and for a product development team the focus could be on accelerating a market launch by two months. The varieties are endless, but the collective theme is that people working together -- each with their own responsibilities -- need to achieve a common result.
These situations call for collaboration -- which should be the fastest and most effective way to get results. But surprisingly over the years I have seen teams respond to these kinds of challenges in three basic ways (only one of which is truly collaborative):
First is what I call compliance. This is when each team member independently responds to the challenge by taking action in her own area. In other words, everyone on the team complies with the need to do something, but avoids working together. For example, I once worked with a divisional leadership team that was required to reduce overall headcount by 10% to meet the corporation's goals. With very little discussion, each person agreed to cut 10% of the people from their own function and report the numbers back to the divisional controller. While this "spread the pain evenly" approach indeed met the corporate requirement, there was probably a better way.
The second response is cooperation. Here again each person develops and implements his own plans, but in this case shares what he is doing with the group. While there is some amount of joint discussion, the focus is still on individual actions rather than a collective strategy. For example, when one technology company needed to increase its sales performance, the districts were all given significantly higher targets. The district managers then went about achieving these targets in different ways. Some increased individual sales quotas across the board, others reallocated resources to higher-potential customers, and still others focused on closing the gap with services contracts. The managers shared these approaches on their weekly calls, and gave each other feedback. But they never created a joint strategy to leverage their combined resources, ideas, and talents. In the end, while some districts hit their targets, the overall numbers were disappointing.
In both of the cases described here, true collaboration might have led to a more robust and effective outcome. In the headcount example, the leadership team might have identified specific areas where headcount could be reduced by more than 10%, considered ways of consolidating similar activities into shared service centers, or any number of other possibilities. In the sales example, the district managers might have reallocated resources across districts, created joint campaigns for particular products, or brainstormed many other ideas that could have been quickly tested and possibly scaled.
What's interesting is that neither team consciously decided not to collaborate. Instead they did what came naturally, which is to work either completely or partially on their own. The reality is that true collaboration is difficult. It requires subordinating individual goals to collective achievement; it means engaging in tough, emotional give-and-take discussions with colleagues about strategies and ideas; and it often leads to working in new ways that may not be comfortable or easy. So given these difficulties, most teams find it easier to talk about collaboration rather than do it.
It doesn't have to be this way. Teams can address their challenges through true collaboration, and by doing so can achieve outstanding results. The starting point however is to make a conscious -- and collective -- decision to go beyond compliance and cooperation.
Have you been on teams that engaged in true collaboration? What did it take to make it happen?
Cross-Posted from Harvard Business Online