Face Time Doesn’t Equal Productivity

I understand Marissa Mayer’s edict to have workers return to the office, but I doubt she will accomplish her stated goal of having Yahoo “move more quickly, with teams focusing on collaboration and communication.”  Simply, I believe that most people today face too many roadblocks to effective collaboration – no matter where they park their computer.

What is Real Collaboration?

At Teleos, we see collaboration as much more than coordinating tasks or playing nice together.  Real collaboration is about building commitment and managing performance, to achieve some shared purpose.  Real collaboration requires people to share their views, even when those views differ from those held by supposed experts and authority figures.  Real collaboration demands the capability to surface and resolve relevant conflicts that block commitment and action.  Real collaboration – the kind that fosters innovation and transforms results – requires uncommon skills, the willingness to break through authority traps, and the kind of coaching and reinforcement not found in most organizations.

Why Don’t People Collaborate?

There are many roadblocks to collaboration, some individual and others organizational.  Following are a few of the most important.

  • Mixed messages – People routinely get direction to work together.  Unfortunately, they also get very strong messages (both explicitly and indirectly) to “drive performance, be accountable, or take ownership” – messages that encourage people to take individual action even when they lack others’ commitment.
  • Conflicting rewards – Rewards are also a problem, perhaps even more so than messaging.  People are often praised publicly for working together, but most reward systems favor individual performance, and even pit people against each other in “zero sum” competitive appraisal systems.
  • Conflicting goals – As with rewards, goals often tend to be written at the individual level, rather than the group level.  When individual goals are paired with strong individual reinforcement systems, it’s should be no surprise that people pursue a personal goal over some shared goal.
  • Limited collaborative skills – There isn’t much training out there that teaches people how to collaborate, and so-called “collaborative tools” provide little more than document exchanges.   People need to learn how to think together, surface and test different viewpoints, and surface and resolve relevant conflicts.
  • Deference to authority – Perhaps the most deeply embedded roadblock is people’s learned deference to authority.  It is not uncommon for people to withhold a useful viewpoint or choose not to surface a relevant conflict if it means they have to disagree with some authority figure.

How to Improve Collaboration

Whether you work virtually or face-to-face, there are three steps every organization can take to improve its collaboration and innovation.

  1. Align goals, measures, and rewards to enable collaboration.  Not all goals should be shared.  But, when you need shared goals, then that interdependence should be reflected in how the goal is written, how performance is measured, and how rewards are utilized.
  2. Break the cycle of control and dependence.  Unfortunately, most people are condition to defer to supposed authority figures.  If you want people to engage, then you need to set and manage expectations for how people will respond to that engagement – especially people seen as authority figures.    This includes actions like sharing reasons for your decisions, asking people to test your ideas, and surfacing information and views that may be in conflict with your proposals.
  3. Train and coach collaborative leadership skills.  Once you start to set expectations for more engagement, then it’s critical to give people the skills then need to turn engagement into results, and also to help people apply those skills on the job.  Some of these critical skills include influence with authority, collaborative conflict resolution, joint analysis and decision-making, and managing performance without authority.

If you can implement these steps, you will see significant improvement in how people engage together, and you should also see improvement in both performance and innovation.

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