Collaboration: More than a Buzzword

1-breatherI believe you can drive business success through successful, meaningful and purposeful collaboration while simultaneously energizing employees.

Individual organizations choose to embrace and promote collaboration for any number of reasons some of which will be unique to an entity and/or its industry. Generally though, efforts are focused on improving performance, increasing innovation, and enhancing services to clients, customers and the public. The most effective initiatives include a deliberate plan in which leaders assess when collaboration is appropriate, define their desired outcomes, and commit to understanding and removing the barriers that may currently exist in their organization.

There are five steps necessary in order to lay the foundation for a more collaborative workplace:

  1. Understanding the types of collaboration and how people form collaborative groups
  2. Reviewing the current state of one’s organizational culture to determine readiness
  3. Understanding the motivational and ability barriers that may derail collaborative efforts
  4. Commit to supporting and reinforcing collaboration by adjusting one’s personal behavior as a leader
  5. Providing access to the tools and technologies that can add value to organizational efforts

I recently led a session at the NetConnect Conference on the topic “Building and Supporting a Collaborative Workplace” and this week I’ll be running a series on the blog covering what we discussed. (note: the slides, with resources, are here). 

Start at the Beginning

When embarking upon an organizational plan to promote a culture of collaboration it’s critical to ask (and answer) three questions:

  1. Why do we want collaboration?
  2. What will collaboration look like in our organization?
  3. How do we ensure our people are ready, willing and able to collaborate?

To harness the power of collaboration, and make it more than just a buzzword listed on the organizational mission statement, you must first fully understand what collaboration is:

“Building toward a defined outcome through the interactions

and input of multiple people”

Hutch Carpenter

Human beings collaborate constantly; it doesn’t magically occur when we form a team or toss out a challenge.  There is both formal and informal collaboration that can be of benefit in organizations and there are many ways in which people collaborate.

In team collaboration the members of the group are generally known to each other, have clear task interdependencies and operate with a focus on an explicit time line and defined goals.  Community collaboration is one in which there is a shared area of interest but the goal is usually more focused on learning and knowledge sharing as opposed to task completion.  Community collaborators share and build knowledge rather than complete tasks and the time period for collaboration of this nature is often open and/or ongoing.  When people embark upon network collaboration they are approaching the relationship based upon self-interest and with individual desire; there is equal power distribution and this type of collaboration often exists because social technology tools have created an environment where all members equally create and share content and connect across boundaries.

The 3 groups form in one of several ways.

Most commonly individuals turn to those who are close to them; familiarity, proximity and similarity play a big role in how people select those with whom they will collaborate. Think about that group of A/P clerks sitting next to each other in the office or the “bullpen” where all the Sales Managers congregate.

At other times individuals will gather will new collaborators or new partners.  This occurs when individuals find people who are outside their typical circle of familiarity. Quite often they have a desire to overturn the tried-and-true, challenge the status quo or pool their diverse experiences/knowledge together in order to attain a common goal.  These groups typically form due to the desire to tackle a problem, explore an idea or delve into a topic base because of their personal passions or beliefs.

The third way that groups form is by bringing together those who challenge or hold opposing viewpoints. This can be considered collaboration by disagreement and is valuable, especially when there’s an understanding that it’s important to hear every idea and consider all input – no matter how contrary.  One of the most well known examples of this occurs at Apple where a culture of innovation and creativity is defined by their statement: 

“innovation and creativity require freedom, disagreement,

and perhaps even a little chaos.”

By understanding how and why people gather together we can see the value to be attained when we gather input from multiple people.  When that input is diversified and challenging it’s quite likely that the top idea, solution or new way of thinking (knowledge) will surface to the top.

Visit the blog tomorrow when we’ll be discussing Collaboration: Why Culture Matters. 


Me Love You Long Time: Managing Employee Departures

miss-you-MGD©-300x236The way in which an employee is treated when departing your company is just as important as how you handled the process when she joined you. Remember those heady days?  You wooed and courted and promised her the moon with the ardent fervor of a love-struck teenager until you convinced her to come on board.

But now she’s decided to leave.  The romance has soured or a more attractive suitor has arrived and lured her away. When an employee tells you “It’s not you – it’s me” (even though it may, in fact, be you) there are a few situations to avoid as you work through the break-up:

Asking him to leave immediately – This has always struck me as about the stupidest thing ever. Ever!  Oh sure, this may make sense for a salesperson who’s not going to be filling the pipeline with new leads if he’s walking out the door in 2 weeks but what’s the point of tossing Carol in Accounting out the door the moment she gives notice?  Yet there are companies who apparently assume all resigning employees are going to gather all the corporate intel they can and sell it to the highest bidder.  I’ve joined organizations where this was the norm; so much so that resigning employees who had to work out a 2 week notice were actually offended they weren’t asked to depart forthwith.

The Shunning – Bob tenders his resignation and is immediately a pariah. He’s no longer invited to meetings and his name disappears from email groups.  He can probably live with all of this but it pains him just a bit when his boss, the division director and, so it seems, the entire leadership team don’t even offer greetings in the hallway.  One step removed from Hester Prynne.  Poor Bob.

The Security Guard with a Box – This is the workplace equivalent of placing your beloved’s belonging on the driveway and calling a locksmith to change the locks.  The neighbors will gawk while furtively pretending to avoid eye contact with all involved and you’ll be the talk of the neighborhood for years.  In the office, I implore you, don’t enlist the services of a building security guard who accompanies the departing employee to her cubicle and keeps a stern eye as she packs up the photos of her kids and her collection of shoe figurines.

The Farewell Party – This is nice, right?  Sally gets treated to cake and punch and her manager gives her a gift card to Outback Steakhouse after he makes a speech about all her contributions and how she was an integral part of the team’s success.  Her co-workers sign a card (funny and slightly ribald because Sally has a sense of humor) and wish her the best of luck.  There are hugs all around with promises to stay in touch and get together for the occasional lunch or happy hour. But Sally feels a bit sad as she wonders “why didn’t they say these things and treat me this way during the 4 years I worked here?  If I knew this is how everyone felt I might not have looked for another job…”

When an employee decides to move on and enter a relationship with someone else you may not be ready to say “I’ll always love you” but you can surely tell him “let’s be friends.”


this post originally ran at the HR Schoolhouse


Death to the Executive Washroom

outhouse-200x300Have you taken a trip to a school lately – grammar school, high school, university?  If so you’ve probably noticed the continuing tradition of labeling parking spots for a select few employees (Principal, Assistant Principal, 2nd Assistant Principal, etc).

This is true at a number of corporate organizations as well; the C-Suite folks get reserved parking spots right by the door while Joe and Sally lunch-bucket must park several blocks away between a 10’ x 10’ dumpster and an alley where shady transactions occur between un-showered people of indeterminate genders. Meanwhile, Bill the CFO doesn’t have to get a splash of rainwater on his shiny oxfords as he meanders into the building from his parking spot 10 feet from the door.

There’s collective indignation when we read about the lavish executive perks that have long been a mainstay of gilded boardrooms – chauffeured cars, private jets, a suite at the local ballpark.  For decades corporate boards have reminded us that many of these things are necessary to attract and retain senior executives although nowadays it does appear as if some compensation committees are taking a tighter look at pay/perk packages being offered.  And so we applaud and say “well at least they understand the moral outrage from those of us here in the 99%.”

In reality though many of us come face-to-face with social stratification perks that exist in our own organizations everyday.  Our egalitarian, flattened hierarchy, “we’re all in this together” companies continue to subtly differentiate between classes of employees and thus send signals that are quite often in conflict with their stated feel-good values about teamwork, openness and a belief that “every employee is as valuable as the next.”  Executives rule from the top floor with its mahogany lined halls and plush carpeting, VPs get offices, and everyone else finds themselves relegated to a cubicle.  Managers and directors have slightly larger cubicles with higher walls although, naturally, directors have a few more feet of cubicle space as befits their loftier title.

The mailroom and purchasing department staffers, down on the lowest floor near the loading docks, have access to one dimly lit unisex bathroom. The gals in HR have bowls of potpourri on their bathroom counters and a private quiet room with a couch.  The senior executives have separate facilities safely behind the glass doors that seal off mahogany row from the rest of the company; surely you can’t expect the SVP of Marketing to stand at a urinal next to Phil from IT.

Expense accounts.  Golf outings during the day.  The ability to slip out and attend professional association lunch meetings or evening networking receptions that start at 5 PM.  An office with a window, a nameplate on the door and an ergonomic chair personally fitted to alleviate lower back pain, and a bottle of marihuana oil for pain relief.  The ability to park, for free, close to the office building as opposed to 4 blocks away accompanied by the necessity to pay a hefty monthly parking fee. The freedom to enjoy some work-life integration and flexible hours with no need to worry about getting scolded disciplined chastised for being 15 minutes late to work because your daughter’s school bus was late.

Many of these things are viewed as being part of the rite of professional passage.  If you strive to do well, get promoted and become a senior staffer or manager then you too can be treated a little better.  “It’s the American way” we say while reminding ourselves of Horatio Alger (even though many people in 2014 wouldn’t know Horatio Alger if he fell out of a tree in front of them).

‘With grit and determination come rewards’ could be the collective mantra of the workplace; this is not just true in ‘corporate’ entities but in government, non-profits and, well, any business.

And I concur; hard work will garner benefits and should be rewarded.

But sometimes organizations, without even thinking about it, continue to promote a culture of the haves vs. the have nots; the royals vs. the unwashed masses; the chosen vs. the worker bees.  It brings to mind what the pigs had to say in George Orwell’s Animal Farm:

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others

*** this post originally ran at the HR Schoolhouse


Work, Culture and the Tension Headache

The_Head_AcheI recently had a conversation with a friend who, while sharing some updates about his current work environment, summed it up by simply stating “it’s just really tense.” Tense; defined as

  • stretched tight, as a cord, fiber, etc.; drawn taut; rigid.
  • in a state of mental or nervous strain; high-strung; taut: a tense person.
  • characterized by a strain upon the nerves or feelings: a tense moment.

Huh. I do believe I’ve worked there. Perhaps you have too.

My friend elaborated a bit further, His workplace, unfortunately, is characterized by a high degree of cronyism, extremely poor communication, and the fear of taking a misstep lest one piss off the powers-that-be. Any time an employee leaves (hurray!) for another organization a high percentage of co-workers make secret and furtive pleas to the soon-to-be-departed: “hey man…can you pass on my resume? Take me with you!” There is also, apparently, a hostile and defensive HR leader who contributes to the rather dismal situation. Employees expect to find a bit of humanity and care when they bring an issue or pose a query to the staff in the human resources department but, instead of attentiveness and assistance, they encounter dismissiveness.

That, in particular, makes me really sad.

While all of these things are a reflection of the overall organizational culture there are some bright spots; a few positive departmental and work team countercultures are thriving. Smart managers are keeping out the evil forces that threaten to destroy any remnants of good will and good work they’ve built within their functional areas. The fortunate few who work on those teams realize how good they’ve got it; after all they have furtive conversations with their not-so-lucky coworkers in the bathroom.


An employee heading to the office every Monday with a nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach; usually after spending a restless Sunday evening filled with dread. Staff members who paste on fake smiles whenever a member of the executive team walks past their cubicles or deigns to say “hello” in the hallway. Employees suffering with symptoms that aren’t even due to long hours, unreasonable work demands, or mentally taxing and labor-intensive duties.

Those who have endured this sort of debilitating affliction realize that relief is not available over the counter.

If you’re an organizational or HR leader your responsibility is to regularly assess, evaluate, and diagnose. Make sure your employees aren’t in continual discomfort due to the excruciating pain of tension headaches.

Merely passing the aspirin is not enough.



Culture Porn: I Know It When I See It

NSFWWe’ve fetishized the pursuit of a great work culture. Workplace pundits, organizational consultants and HR professionals have joined together, en masse, and become excessively devoted to the concept of defining, building, fixing and dissecting something that is ultimately amorphous, elusive and perhaps undefinable.

No…this is not yet another Amazon post; there have been plenty of articles written since the original ran in the New York Times. Just this morning I read an article on Fast Company entitled “Amazon’s No Outlier: The Science Behind Broken Work Cultures.” The authors recently conducted some research for a forthcoming book and found that of all the unique reasons that we (humans) do most anything there are 6 primary motives that drive our actions:

  • Play
  • Purpose
  • Potential
  • Emotional pressure
  • Economic pressure
  • Inertia

They pointed out that in organizations the first three can lead to growth, innovation and engagement; the latter three can derail everything. (Their book, Primed to Perform, is coming out in October).

The authors sum it up as such:

“Until now, we have mistaken symptoms of culture, like perks and work hours, for culture itself.

Armed with a better understanding of how culture drives performance, Amazon, Netflix and

every organization in between can start to design systems and processes that align with the

actual work employees perform—not with the indirect motives that can drag both down together.”


Discussions about workplace culture always make me think of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s characterization of pornography (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964): “I know it when I see it.”

It’s nebulous and ephemeral isn’t it? All the HR leaders, Recruitment Marketers, and Culture Branding experts putting pen to paper are trying to describe something that’s, well, hard to describe. Or, at the very least, is subject to varying interpretations. For while we seem to be developing an understanding of what culture is and what culture isn’t, there are still many who decide that having Casual Fridays and flex scheduling (“you can choose 8 to 5 or 9 to 6 or even 7:30 to 4:30!”) is culture.

Once upon a time I worked in a dystopian, yet sadly all too real, workplace that had, you guessed it, Casual Fridays and flex scheduling. The majority of the folks in the C-Suite (so freaking far removed from the day to day they had no clue whatsoever) believed they had cracked the culture code. “We’re fun! We wear jeans on Friday! One time we had pizza!! People can work from 7:30 to 4:30!!!!! Well, not 7:35 to 4:35 mind you, but we’re flexible!!!”

The-powers-that-be described and branded the organizational culture with an utter disdain for reality; they were living in a well-lit rom-com with sunshine and champagne while employees were inhabiting a dungeon complete with whips, chains and Frank Booth from Blue Velvet.

Robert in Sales and Melanie in IT didn’t buy any of it.

They  knew it when they saw it.


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