Collaboration: Why People Opt In


If you accept our premise that collaboration can’t be bought, but it can be inspired, that begs the question: How?

I suspect very few people think about collaboration as something they are trying to produce. What is more common is people having an intention. For instance, they see the need for a team, they get people into position, define what needs to be accomplished, and then people go to work.

In that kind of situation, sometimes it’s an environment of cooperation and sometimes it becomes an environment of collaboration. And usually no one necessarily knows why it went one way versus the other. Yet it matters immensely, because with collaboration, there’s an all-encompassing shift wherein something new becomes possible.  So the question is: Can you orchestrate things so there’s a bigger chance that collaboration may show up? Clearly we think it is possible.

Collaboration happens when people decide, to a person, that they want to sign up for the team. Everyone’s reason may be different, but the common denominator is that people elect to be part of something when it addresses a fundamental concern of theirs. Each person recognizes something of significance to them personally, and is drawn to an undertaking that strikes them as genuinely meaningful.

For example, we have seen a mining company receive shut-down orders, but convince headquarters to keep the mine minimally operational, and align the rank and file with the plan until the market came back (and it did). We have seen a major transportation services company at the brink of disaster post-9/11, then emerge five years later with accolades as the industry’s premier provider. And we’ve seen five organizations who never before worked in an alliance come together on a risky, top-dollar, public project, and deliver award-winning performance under budget and ahead of schedule.

In all instances, people collectively rose above and beyond any norms they had ever known, far surpassing previous limits. And in all cases, collaboration had been inspired by a certain kind of leadership.

So how does a leader know what the people in their organization really, truly care about? They really, truly listen. My colleague Lainie Heneghan calls this “radical listening.” Her blog breaks down the concept, but here’s the upshot for leaders: “If you’re not listening to them – chances are, they’re not listening to you, either.”

Collaboration doesn’t begin with a grand speech, or someone in the front of the room saying, “Well, we’re the team that are going to get this done.” It begins when leaders communicate in a way that their people can see their own individual priorities and sensibilities reflected in what the enterprise is taking on. I recommend the following steps.

Step 1: Understand what the people you lead really care about, beyond being paid to show up, and in what ways they could see your organization as offering something meaningful enough for them to engage.

Step 2: Create with your people the great endeavor around which collaboration is sought – something revealed as really mattering to all involved, including you.

Step 3: Provide the opportunity for people to volunteer and sign up to the endeavor – and let them define the opportunities for action and the results they will pursue.

Then they will want to play. Because it matters to them. It will have become about much more than paying the bills or making it through another day. It will be about something distinctly more meaningful, and it could lead to the performance of an organization’s lifetime.

And that is what we call fulfilling on why enterprises exist. That will be the next post in this series.

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