Collaboration: Why Culture Matters

kid underwaterOnce you, as a company leader or department/functional leader, decide to focus on increasing collaboration in the workplace the first step is to assess readiness. This involves exploring a bit of cultural reality. What’s really going on? What are the true values, beliefs, traditions, norms and behaviors in your company? What’s the environment like? How does stuff really get done? Where, let’s face it, are the skeletons buried? For that matter, whose skeletons are they?

While there are many areas to explore and understand (and if you’re in HR you hopefully have a good grasp on these things already) there are three questions I find helpful when evaluating the current state of readiness:

Question 1:  Do you operate in the relay race model or the rugby match model?

If you imagine a team working on a project the group that employs the relay race model operates by having each function complete its work and then pass it on to the next function. C follows B follows A.

A team is chartered and roles assigned but the process lumbers along as … the marketing group conducts research and sends the results to the product design group, which then, only when finished, passes the results along to the engineering group which, when done, passes the information back to marketing. Slow and lumbering. Waiting for one group/person to get their work done before the next group/person takes over.

In the rugby model however all players take the field at the same time and intend to stay active for the duration of the game.  There’s constant interaction as the team moves toward its goal and, as is the case in a rugby match, different players take the lead or employ a stronger approach at various stages throughout the game.

The difference from the relay race approach is striking. In the rugby model the entire team is in the game for the whole time; all players participate in decisions and understand the status of the match at all times. Operating in this manner means that constant communication is crucial. Not in a “let’s plan an update meeting to draft the agenda for the next meeting” type of way but rather in a manner that’s ongoing, spontaneous and ever evolving.  As the dynamics of play change or as the momentum shifts, the entire team adjusts and takes action.

Question 2:  Is the organization task oriented or relationship oriented?

While stuff needs to get done and people need to “make the donuts,” task completion can’t be the only thing emphasized. After all…people need strong relationships in order to work together effectively and allowing them to cultivate them is crucial.

There are still organizations where it’s frowned upon for employees to get up from their cubicle and wander across the aisle to ask a colleague a question or interact for a few minutes.  Why? Well, there are some leaders, managers, and HR professionals (yup) who have decided this means employees are ‘wasting time.’  Hello? These are colleagues sharing tacit knowledge, seeking clarification or even getting to know the people with whom they work.  Relationships are important. Does your organization view them as such?

Cultures that support relationship building understand it’s a necessary (and beneficial) component in meeting business goals.

Question 3:  Do leaders exhibit behaviors that affirm the importance of relationships?

Place and environment are elements of your culture and often reflect the types of relationship building with which leaders are comfortable.  Do leaders hide behind closed doors on a separate floor? Are work groups segregated?  Do managers discourage their staff members from visiting other departments? I’ve worked in those sorts of companies.

Several years ago when the Royal Bank of Scotland constructed a new headquarters building the CEO made sure it included an indoor atrium; this “Main Street” design included shops, picnic spaces and an athletic facility. The design encourages all employees to interact daily with a goal of fueling relationships across boundaries/silos in order to assist with collaborative efforts in complex teams. Everyone, including the C-Suite bigwigs, strolls down Main Street each and every day.

If the goal of collaboration is better business performance it’s important to ensure you’re launching initiatives in a receptive environment. If you’re not ready…you’re doomed to fail.


Visit the blog tomorrow when we’ll explore Motivation and Ability and take a look at the barriers that prevent employees from collaborating. View yesterday’s post in this series on collaboration. 


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