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The Other Competitive Advantage

By Brant Menswar, ELC Speaker

MenswarAs a young leader in the manufacturing arena, you recognize the need for a detailed and well-defined process. It is the very nature of your business. In fact, the better your process, the more often it becomes the competitive advantage that separates you from the pack. We feel the same way when we approach collaboration.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out the “downside to collaboration” citing recent research at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. According to the study, “collaboration sometimes hinders problem solving because individuals in big groups tend to parrot one another, resulting in a narrow set of solutions.”

The findings of this study echo the reasons why companies are struggling with the collaborative process. Collaboration needs structure. In fact, as an organization that helps companies operationalize the collaborative process, we would define collaboration as: A process governed by an agreed upon set of norms and behaviors that maximize individual contribution while leveraging the collective intelligence of everyone involved.

Finding a group of people that “parrot one another” is no surprise when people do not know where the lines are drawn. How far can I go? Can I be critical? Do I have a voice in the matter? Will my input be taken seriously? When the answers to these types of questions are not defined, honesty and true feedback are as rare as purple unicorns.

Achieving successful collaboration first requires the creation of an environment conducive to people working together. Does your team have an agreed upon set of norms and behaviors that define the environment in which they work? What does that look like? How do they expect to be treated? How do you address accountability? The first step we take with our clients is defining what this agreement entails. We find the crucial things that help motivate and engage the people involved. We write them down so anyone can refer to them and see where the “edge” is. This is where things like trust, honesty, no judgement or belittling, no stupid ideas, assuming best intentions and a myriad of other non-negotiables are listed. Whether you are a company veteran or a new hire, you know the environment you are stepping into the minute you enter the meeting room. Once the norms and behaviors have been established, people will be willing to take more “risks” and be more honest with their suggestions and input.

By creating the right environment, you have given every person a “voice” that will allow them to give their individual contribution. When people begin to share and openly express concerns, fears and differences of opinion without fear of rejection, aggression or retaliation, you build the trust needed for collaboration to truly be effective. You start to see the benefit of the collective intelligence of everyone involved. The opportunity to find better solutions is increased exponentially.

We need to move away from this idea that collaboration is an “activity.” We need to stop placing relative strangers in a room together and tell them to “work together.” This is antiquated thinking that most often leads to collaborative chaos and mediocre results if you’re lucky and complete derailment if you’re not. If you were handed instructions to put an elaborate bookcase together and they were written in ancient Arabic, how is that going to help you? Getting everyone speaking the same language by establishing the “what and how” is a crucial step towards everyone working together effectively and efficiently on the path to collaborative utopia. A place where “parrots” are an endangered species.