The colourful truth about working collaboratively

Birds do it. Bees do it. Even Justin Bieber and Karl Lagerfeld are doing it.

Everyone’s talking about collaboration at the moment. Deloitte Access Economics estimates that the ‘collaborative economy’ (the value of greater workplace collaboration) is worth a staggering $46 billion in Australia alone.

So much of this talk is focused on using the right technology and creating the right working environment. But are we overlooking a more fundamental issue?

Collaborating on CMA’s new website

We ran into some collaboration challenges recently while redeveloping CMA’s website. After spending the better part of a week ‘negotiating’ the home page layout and colours with colleagues and our web designer, I found myself getting frustrated. Everyone had an opinion, but we struggled to find a solution. Why was it so hard to make such a simple decision?

Pixar's Ed Catmull

Pixar’s Ed Catmull

At the time, I was reading Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull’s fascinating corporate autobiography, Creativity, Inc. Catmull describes in detail how the company fosters and protects its creative culture. The essence of Catmull’s insights might be distilled as this: to promote creativity, you need to increase collaboration; to promote collaboration, you need to reduce fear.

Collaboration with team members flourishes when people feel safe to express their perspectives and are genuinely open to hearing those of others. So while file-sharing software and ‘activity based’ workspaces might bring people together, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will have the right conversations in the right way.

And that is the key to genuine collaboration.

So what gets in the way?

The collaborative mindset is fragile

It’s one thing to say you have a collaborative culture. But most people have these pesky things called “egos” and “feelings” that can get in the way of being truly collaborative. It’s less about sharing perspectives and more about attacking or defending them. There’s a sense that “if you’re right, then I must be wrong”. That’s why brainstorming sessions can quickly turn into heated debates.

In my experience, it takes conscious effort to maintain a collaborative mindset (at least in some situations). But that’s the point. Collaboration requires a level of consciousness in our thoughts, words and actions.

The good news is that there are strategies that you can use to consciously develop and maintain a collaborative mindset in yourself and others. Here are three strategies that we’ll be exploring in more detail in future posts:

1. Framing the conversation

Framing is a technique for establishing the context of a conversation in a way that influences how that conversation is perceived. Too often, we jump into the detail without considering how we might prepare others for what they are about to hear. Then we wonder why they become so defensive!

When giving feedback to a colleague, try to anticipate any negative assumptions they may be making about what you’re about to say. What could you say to address those assumptions and encourage them to be more open? Simply changing a word like “feedback” to “suggestions” can signal that your purpose is to contribute rather than to criticise.

2. Matching intention and impact

Effective communication comes down to making sure that:

  • you have a clear intention (in terms of your message and how you want the other person to receive it); and
  • your impact on the other person matches your intention.

If you intend to be collaborative, you’re only effective if your colleague feels that you’re being collaborative. How? By carefully adapting your words, tone and body language to create the desired impact. If in doubt, explain your intention explicitly.

Conversely, if you feel that others aren’t being collaborative, consider whether that is really their intention. Perhaps they are expressing themselves unclearly because they are stressed or tired. Again, if in doubt, ask them to clarify what they mean.

3. Choosing to be constructive

In Getting Together by Roger Fisher and Scott Brown of the Harvard Negotiation Project, the authors advise us to be “unconditionally constructive”. They define this as “[doing] those things and only those things that are both good for the relationship and good for me – whether or not you reciprocate.” [emphasis added]

Some artwork that didn't make it onto the final version of our home page!

An example of the artwork that didn’t make it onto our home page!

It is those last few words that present a challenge. It’s easy to be constructive when others are being constructive – that seems fair. But what if they’re being demanding, or petty, or secretive? It may be tempting to play ‘tit-for-tat’. Welcome to the downward spiral of distrust and hostility.

Next time you’re faced with a collaboration challenge, ask yourself: What is the most constructive step I can take next? How can I build the relationship and meet my own needs?

Collaboration is a process, not an outcome

Once you’ve established a collaborative culture, constant monitoring is vital. It’s an ongoing process — some might even describe it as a practice — and it’s certainly not something you ‘set and forget’.

What’s your experience of collaboration in the workplace? How do you maintain a collaborative mindset?

We’ll be sharing more insights and strategies in future posts. If you can’t wait, please contact us or share your thoughts and stories with the CMA Learning Community on LinkedIn.

We look forward to hearing from you!

To learn more about interest based negotiation, we recommend the book “Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher & William Ury.”

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